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Heavenly

Theatre Review by Jonathan Frank

It is a truism that one cannot judge a book by its cover, or, for that matter, a show by its advertisements. Just as it is a bad idea for actors to appear at an audition looking nothing like their headshot, a show does not benefit from posters and postcards that seemingly offer one sort of entertainment, yet deliver another; even (nay, especially) if what is presented ends up being far superior and more artistic than what one was expecting.

A case in point is Heavenly, a one-act play by the internationally acclaimed British theater company Frantic Assembly that is playing at 59E59 Theaters as part of its Brits Off Broadway series. The postcard for the show features a trio of buff, apparently naked men in a layout reminiscent of Charlie's Angels wielding powder-blue Uzis while trapped in a snowglobe strewn with kitschy litter, including a broken Starship Enterprise. Pairing that imagery with the postcard's synopsis of the show, which states that "Heavenly shows what happens after a drunken New Year's Eve when three friends wake up and find themselves naked and dead," I went in expecting to see a fusion of Boys in the Band, Naked Boys Singing, and Heaven Can Wait with a dollop of Chelsea Boys thrown in. The reality could not have been further from the truth, but as they say, 'a picture is worth a thousand words,' and it took about a thousand words of script before my preconceptions were erased and I fully entered the world of the show.

And what a world it is. Set designer, Dick Bird, has created an afterlife more closely resembling a crack den than the Pearly Gates with stained institutional mattresses covering the floor and back wall. The rest of the set consists of two white Ikea couches, one of which is bolted to the back wall in a manner that affords us a bird's eye view whenever the show takes a turn into M.C. Escher land. The three mates, Steven (Hoggett). his brother, Scott (Graham) and their best friend, Liam (Steel), literally fall into this world and right away assume that it is some sort of manifestation of the after life; a reasonable assumption as the last thing any of them remember is falling off a cliff while taking a short cut in pursuit of a good shag. As they struggle to make sense of the situation, which is equal parts Sartre's No Exit, Beckett's Play and Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, they rapidly realize things are not what they seem. Whether the truth turns out to a case of one man's heaven being another man's hell or something a bit more twisted remains to be seen until the final moments of the play.

If this makes the play sound dark and existential in nature, nothing could be farther from the truth. The show, which was adapted by the three actors (who also co-directed it) from a story by Gary Owen, is by turns a high speed farce (with riffs on time travel and whether the five stages of grief are depression, denial, bargaining, acceptance, gluttony, Donner and Blitzen), a dissertation on the multitude of things that won't be missed from the corporeal world, and a realization of wish fulfillment as 'heaven' seems to be a place where the necessities of life magically appear (although what these boys consider 'necessities' is a character study unto themselves).

The show's style shifts from naturalistic to surreal in the blink of an eye and is punctuated with stylized choreography that recalls Blue Man Group, Momix and The Three Stooges. Indeed, it is the latter element that elevates the play to a visually stunning and oddly touching level. While the script is more than adequate with an almost improvisational feel to it, the show truly comes to life whenever the actors execute the fluid choreography created by Liam Steel as these moments most effectively establish the relationships between the characters, as well providing information on their situations and emotional states.

The actors are all equally adept at navigating the changes in tone and level of 'reality' and manage to keep the show grounded in some sort of emotional truth. The set by Dick Bird is a marvel of deceptive simplicity as it is full of surprises and fulfills a multitude of tasks. Colin Grenfell's lighting design and Nathaniel Reed's soundtrack work together seamlessly to enhance the essence of whatever is being performed. The only flaw in the production (aside from its promotion) is in the costuming (also by Dick Bird) and the occasional lack thereof. The much touted (but very brief) nudity serves its purpose by presenting the characters as 'newly reborn,' as it were, but having the characters spend the rest of the show in terrycloth bathrobes and tighty-whities serves to act as a distraction, as the various wardrobe malfunctions that the actors deal with throughout the show (ie: belts that won't stay tied and robes that won't stay closed) break the flow of the piece and the audience's concentration.

Heavenly is a highly imaginative and beautifully realized piece of theater that incorporates a variety of elements in a highly organic manner and thus is well worth experiencing.

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Brits Off Broadway 2004
Heavenly
Through May 30
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street between Park and Madison Avenues
Schedule and Tickets: 212.279.4200