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Cul de Sac Rock (A one man sorta rock opera)

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Family life has been long been fodder for actors and comedians, and if you're the parent of a child with show-business aspirations of any kind, it's probably best to mind not only what you say but how you say it. You never know when your words - or perhaps even you - will end up onstage in your child's show.

For proof of how dangerous - and hilarious - this can be, you need look no further than Cul de Sac Rock, Jeffrey Marshek's "one man sorta rock opera" at the Midtown International Theatre Festival. Though ostensibly a story about Marshek's growing up Jewish and gay in Cleveland, Ohio, this play is a charming and warm-hearted Valentine to the people he loves to hate and hates to love: his family.

After viewing Cul de Sac Rock, I feel not only as though I know the members of his family intimately, but that I'd recognize them if I saw them on the street. Marshek doesn't impersonate the members of his family so much as he seems to become them from the inside out - his uptight and nervous mother, his well-meaning but blaring father, and his two out-of-it brothers are all so well depicted that it often seems as if Marshek can't really be alone onstage.

His transformations of both body and voice, which he has expertly devised and very consistently executes, really are that convincing. A single word or hand motion can signal a change in character, and often provoke laughter before the actual punch line arrives; the tightening or loosening of muscles in his forehead are equally capable of registering heartbreak without requiring words. Marshek never wastes an opportunity to show the most human, vulnerable side of the members of his family.

This makes them all seem fully developed as people, which only aids Marshek in depicting their interactions together. When any of them engage in a conversation or argument, Marshek (who also occasionally plays himself) provides enough information so that the shape of the conversation is evident, even when only one person is speaking. The words that are spoken have significant impact, and allow you to understand his family so well that by the time the show ends, it's difficult not to love and feel for them all.

If Marshek's skill at invoking his family in both speech and physicality ranks as one of this year's MITF's most notable achievements so far, his work on the seven rock-inflected songs in the show is less impressive. The songs, which all occur before or after scenes depicting Marshek's family life, burst onto the stage under Darren Katz's direction like a rock concert, but, in the concept-musical tradition, comment upon the action rather than forward it.

There's nothing wrong with them musically or lyrically, but dramatically, they're uninvolving. The situations and characters in Marshek's story are drawn so clearly that the music can make few dramatic contributions. The songs often restate, rather than recast, what has already been dealt with in the spoken scenes, and every subject Marshek tackles - including his bar mitzvah, visiting his grandmother in the hospital, and coming out to his parents - is so thoroughly explored that the songs make the show feel more repetitive than it otherwise might.

The rest of the show is so tight that this often seems as if it will prove damaging, but that never proves to be the case; everything else is so dynamic, funny, and moving that even sitting through the songs is not too high a price to pay. If Cul de Sac Rock could stand to rock a bit more, it's already rolling quite nicely under the locomotion that Marshek - and his family - have so graciously provided.

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Midtown International Theatre Festival
Cul de Sac Rock (A one man sorta rock opera)
Through July 31
Running Time: 80 minutes with no intermission
WorkShop Theatre, Jewel Box Space, 4th Floor, 312 West 36th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Schedule and Tickets: SmartTix 212.868.4444