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Cosmic Wonders, Cosmic Blunders

Theatre Review by Warren Hoffman

The contributors of the plays to Hudson River Repertory Company’s evening of one-act comedies Cosmic Wonders, Comic Blunders seem to have watched one too many episodes of Saturday Night Live. With the exception of an older piece by comic master Christopher Durang, the remaining eight one acts run low on comedy and seem to be stuck in the realm of one-joke humor more typically found on late-night TV sketch shows. Though one could make an entire evening of one-act comedies, the fact that there is no coherent theme, let alone single playwright, to tie these works together leaves the evening feeling, at times, haphazard and disorganized.

Running almost two and a half hours and made up of nine (mainly new) one-acts, Cosmic Wonders, Comic Blunders is overly long, particularly when one gets the joke right at the start, but is forced to endure ten minutes or more of the so-called comedy. Take, for instance, She With a Capital Ess by Jay D. Hanagan in which a man (Sedley O. Bloomfield), having been dumped by his girlfriend, finds his rhetorical questions about love and romance answered by the Voice of God (Dan Diggles). Sure, the idea is funny for about twenty seconds, but the play, or rather skit, quickly runs out of steam and turns into unfunny jokes about morals, gender, and the relationship between men and women.

The line between sketch comedy and a well-written one act is more complex than it might seem. A one act needs to be more than a skit, but truly a play, albeit a short one, that arguably encapsulates some greater truth or idea, presented succinctly (David Ives, of course, being the current master of this concept). Instead, the plays of Cosmic Wonders, Comic Blunders often take the SNL approach, which is to find a single gag or conceit to ostensibly drive the entire playlet. Song by Drew Denbaum, is one such trifle, a mildly funny piece in which a frustrated man, hilariously portrayed by Byron Loyd, is forced to remain on hold on the telephone and listen to “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” while trying to get assistance concerning his insurance claim. It’s cute and a great character study, but not terrific theater.

Or take Patty and Lainie by Marv Siegel, the funniest of the new works, in which Patty (Debra Henri) and Lainie (Kathy Calahan), two women who are about to meet men whom they’ve only ever met over the Internet, create a funny and complex series of code phrases that they plan to use to secretly communicate to each other in the event that they want to leave the date. Once they meet the men, the women are smitten, but Siegel cleverly has the men devise their own secret code phrases to discuss the women in a classic turn-the-tables maneuver. It’s funny and well-acted, but not particularly deep or meaningful.

Christopher Durang’s piece Wanda’s Visit is clearly the most polished of the set and, if not his best work, reveals a sense of wonderful absurdity underlying the tragic and dull lives of middle-class white folk in suburban Connecticut. In Durang’s mini-opus, Jim (David Csizmadia) and his wife Marsha (marvelously acted by Katie Atcheson) bemoan their unhappy and boring marriage of thirteen years, only to be confronted with a surprise visit by Wanda, one of Jim’s old high-school sweethearts. Played to perfection by Deb Armelino (who reminds one of Kathy Najimy), Wanda is now a fat, out-of-control mess who barges her way into Jim and Marsha’s home (and bed) and outrageously flirts with Jim, much to Marsha’s chagrin. Like many of Durang’s works, the play spirals out of control and devolves into a messy and wacky conclusion. Yet, for all its brevity, Durang’s characters feel well rounded and memorable in a way that the figures in most of the other one acts do not.

Cosmic Wonders, Comic Blunders, despite the lackluster uneven writing, is surprisingly not without charm or merit. The show is admirably directed by Hudson River Repertory Company artistic producer Laurie Eliscu who has clearly done her darndest to extract all the humor she can from these pieces. Her direction is astutely carried out and handled by an adept and extremely large cast of fourteen actors. This tight ensemble, to their credit, nimbly moves through their paces and shoots off their lines with such skillful ease that one might think that these plays are funnier than they actually are.

This is the first full-production from the Hudson River Repertory Company and Eliscu has shown that talent is clearly on their side. Hopefully, for their next show, Eliscu will pick a work that is more worthy of the company’s acting abilities and of her own skillful direction, rather than frothy, unmemorable skits, which in the best of circumstances could be turned off by simply changing the channel.

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Hudson River Repertory Company
Cosmic Wonders, Cosmic Blunders
Through July 24
Shetler Theatre 54, 244 West 54th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Schedule and Tickets: 212.352.3101