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Off Broadway


It's Only a Play
Invisible Child
Spit It Out!
Cex and the Sity

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

It's Only a Play

Terrence McNally is a brilliant playwright with equal facility at both comedy and drama, and his It's Only a Play - which went through several incarnations from the late 1970s to the early 1990s - demonstrates his superb ability to let them intermingle to hilarious effect. The story, about the colorful personalities at the opening night bash of a beleaguered Broadway play, is equal parts love letter to the business of show business and a devastating critique of it. If the show loses some steam (and credibility) once the play-within-the-play's reviews come in, until then it's a heck of a ride.

It's Only a Play, though, truly needs a crack comic cast, and this production doesn't have one. John Squire is a bland personality on which to hang the central character of James Wicker, the rising star for whom the play's author (a blasť Frederick Hamilton) originally intended the lead role, and who's come to revel in the production's failure. Sheila Mart is utterly unconvincing as Returning Theatre Star Virginia Noyes, and had serious problems remembering her lines at the performance I attended; Charles Marti puts on too much artifice as a John Simon-like theatre critic-cum-playwright. Much better are Betty Hudson as an aging taxi-driving gate crasher and Cynthia Henderson as a ditzy glamour-girl producer.

John Capo's an understated riot as the play's overly conceptual director, Frank Finger, who's praying that the reviews will finally burst his Wunderkind bubble. A little flouncy, a little enigmatic, and a lot neurotic, Capo's Frank is terrific. What's odd is that Capo is also the director of It's Only a Play, and his work lacks the intense yet breezy focus he brings so readily to his acting. Granted, a stronger ensemble would be a great help, but Capo might consider drawing more on his character to help tighten the overall production. It's a reversal of traditional acting technique, but Capo's portrayal and choice of shows proves he's more than willing to tackle unusual challenges.

Itís Only A Play
Through August 7 on a limited Festival Performance Schedule
WorkShop Theater, 312 West 36th Street, 4th floor, west of 8th Ave
Running Time: 90 minutes, with one intermission
Tickets online and Festival Performance Schedule:
Smarttix

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Invisible Child

One suspects that Lisa Barri's intentions in writing Invisible Child were nothing but honorable, but the "conversation for one voice and three dancers" that has resulted from her efforts suggest most of her energy was misplaced. Barri plays a series of women of many different ages and nationalities who seem to share only feelings of being physically or psychologically alone in the world, but who, as the play unfolds, actually are tiny parts of a convoluted crime story that Barri has contrived to tie them all together. But the connections, tenuous and uninvolving, don't solidify the play, but instead make it feel like a jigsaw puzzle you lose interest in after assembling half of it.

The other pieces, though, are fine: William Catanzaro's original score is by turns haunting and distractingly dissonant; the choreography (by a number of collaborators, including roberta mathes and Tabitha Boulding, who dance it with Karlen Schreiber) is lithely attractive but shares only basic thematic connections with the story surrounding it. Director Steven Day can't make everything cohere, but it's his fault only to a point - Barri's plodding, meandering script makes it difficult to maintain interest in the proceedings for long. The same can be said of her performance, which captures a few genuine moments of emotional upheaval in solitary and familial situations that feel as though they belong in a very different play. In general, though, her work is embellished too freely with accents (ranging from young child to Brooklyn to Eastern European) that seem designed to highlight the characters' differences, but instead highlight their similarities of being trapped under the umbrella of a tedious, grim evening. Invisible Child is a potentially interesting experiment and not undeserving of further tweaking, but currently the point of it is nowhere to be seen.

Invisible Child
Through August 5 on a limited Festival Performance Schedule
WorkShop Theater, 312 West 36th Street, 4th floor, west of 8th Ave
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Tickets online and Festival Performance Schedule:
Smarttix

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Spit It Out!

Not every female duo is going to be Cagney & Lacey, Thelma & Louise, or Lucy & Ethel; some lead more subdued lives. That certainly helps playwrights like Amy Coleman and Valerie Smaldone ground their work in Spit It Out!, but it's problematic as well: those famous teams are more memorable than trashy TV talk show host Kara Angelo (Smaldone) and aspiring jazz singer Hannah Cohen (Coleman). The two meet annoyed in a spa and keep crossing paths until, by virtue of proximity, they're forced into friendship.

Still, allowing for dramatic license, their relationship is easy enough to accept as they teach, haunt, help, and frustrate each other in locales ranging from doctors offices and a catered Indian dinner to an upscale transvestite restaurant. The playwrights don't lack for creativity, and each possesses a genial, unaffected acting style that makes her seem like the woman next door. But with relatively little action and relatively a lot of fabricated conflict, the women's story never gets off the ground, and the women's individual goals aren't really the stuff of compelling theatre as handled here. By contrast, it's almost too easy to care about their co-star, Stephen Bienskie, who struts, sashays, and camps his way through the various men in their lives. He anchors his every scene with a naturally wacky sense of humor (his brief turn as a drag queen waitress is a particular showstopper), and his rock-savvy voice is just right for the songs he frequently sings with Coleman, many of which have either overly obvious or tangential connections to the plot.

The female bonding experience, however, is the real point of Spit It Out!, and the authors and their able director Sarah Gurfield achieve their goals, if deliberately and unexcitingly so. But with a delightful scene-stealer like Bienskie on hand, the women's generic troubles seem even more, well, generic; his eccentric specificity trumps their paint-by-numbers realism. As such, it's impossible to imagine Hannah and Kara's lives - or Spit It Out! - without Bienskie's plethora of colorful personalities.

Spit It Out!
Through August 6 on a limited Festival Performance Schedule
WorkShop Theater, 312 West 36th Street, 4th floor, west of 8th Ave
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Tickets online and Festival Performance Schedule:
Smarttix

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Cex and the Sity

The hardest things to parody are usually those that already have a healthy sense of humor about themselves. That's the biggest stumbling block in Rick Suvalle's Cex and the Sity, which is acutely aware of every facet of the show it lampoons (and you shouldn't need me to tell you which one) except its self-aware whimsy. The resulting show (overlong at only an hour) is one that - despite a wealth of comic ideas and a couple of keen, if broad, characterizations - is never as entertaining or inventive as its source material.

It's also cripplingly episodic, as if Suvalle knew that dwelling too long on any one series of jokes would be a recipe for disaster. So, sex writer Shari (Marjorie Suvalle, Rick's sister, who created and produced the show with Robin Ackerman), virginal Scarlet (Theresa Fowler), lesbian Cassandra (Elizabeth Bowden), and man-eater Mantha (Christopher Flynn) pose and prowl their way through a series of overwrought, underfunny adventures. These include getting arrested on trumped-up crimes (including kidnapping and stealing expensive shoes), flashing back to when they all first met at an elite Cosmo bash, taking on various roles in a Wizard of Oz parody and in a series of reality TV spoofs, and eventually meeting decades down the line to mourn the passing of Saks Fifth Avenue.

The performers all do passable if predictable imitations of the TV show's stars: Marjorie Suvalle's resemblance to Sarah Jessica Parker and Bowden's to Cynthia Nixon are particularly creepy, but Fowler finds none of Kristin Davis's glittering charm and Flynn just pushes too much. It helps that director Michael Ormond has come up with some staging ideas that root the show squarely in vaudeville, where it so clearly belongs. But Cex and the Sity is square in too many other ways to have any real comic impact - nothing here demonstrates the hip, urban quality of the original TV series or suggests any real love or respect for it, something the very best parodies are never without.

Cex and the Sity
Through August 7 on a limited Festival Performance Schedule
WorkShop Theater, 312 West 36th Street, 4th floor, west of 8th Ave
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Tickets online and Festival Performance Schedule:
Smarttix