New York International Fringe Festival - FringeNYC
Point number one: Never drink and drive. Point number two: How to beat a field sobriety test.
Do I have your attention? When this scene hit in Johnny Law, the new one-man play by Tim Ryan Meinelschmidt and Thomas L. Fox Esq. (as he’s billed), actor Meinelschmidt certainly had the audience’s. Not, however, because the people comprising it were an assemblage of felons waiting to happen. But because, well, who doesn’t like hearing a bona fide insider reveal forbidden secrets? But apart from that and an expansive discussion on creative use of No Contest pleas, this is a decidedly low-juice outing.
What’s present instead is a mild-mannered tour through the bad manners of the American legal system, as seen by an attorney (improbably, he admits, named Johnny Law) who worked within its Constitutional, criminal, and entertainment quarters. Johnny dissects the outlooks, attitudes, and chivalry of judges, lawyers, and plaintiffs and defendants with exacting, and frequently uninteresting, care.
Oh, you can derive temporary smiles from why Johnny once delivered a closing statement lying on the floor, or a vicarious shiver from learning how his unorthodox treatment of an uncooperative client landed him with a fine from a judge and a bloody nose. But despite Christopher Fessenden’s breezy staging and Meinelschmidt’s proving an estimable mimic, vividly portraying people of a range of ages and ethnicities on both sides of the bench, the script never fizzes with excitement. Only tiny snatches of trials appear, making it difficult to establish context for the attorney’s art. And the dramatic device that kickstarts the action, Johnny’s representing a good kid busted for drugs, is unusually obligatory, equally difficult to follow or care about.
In fairness, any show has it tough. Such moments have long been the bread and butter of TV drama, and the various series in the Law & Order franchise have kept stories like these at the forefront of the public’s entertainment consciousness for nearly two decades. Ideally, Johnny Law and other shows like it would topple the myths and demonstrate how reality can be more subversive and gripping than fantasy, but without entertainment and information the messages won’t come across. That’s why Johnny Law is best when it ventures where fiction seldom dares. It just never goes there often enough.
Run Time: 1 hour 15 minutes
Admit it, it’s happened to you: You’ve felt that though you and a romantic partner shared a language, you were communicating as if you were from different planets. Imagine that the two people thus encumbered were a playwright and an actor, onstage, in a play set in a theater, enacting their entire relationship without pretending to pretend. That’s Kimberly Patterson’s play Fluency.
The actor, Jack (Martin Soole), arrives onstage performing vocal warm-ups. The playwright, Olivia (Jill Jichetti), joins him, carrying a program for Fluency. The two are faced with each other, three featureless black scenery cubes, some chairs, and nothing else. Their goal, apparently: to see what they can create.
Patterson has certainly implemented an inventive structure, and she and director Jichetti both build on and deconstruct the kind of rampant self-referentiality currently visible on Broadway in the musical [title of show]. Jack and Olivia navigate about the stage as though they’re stumbling through their first date. Sex happens very much by surprise, as though a few pages of script were discovered at the last possible moment. Light and scenery changes are narrated, bridging gaps in space and time theatregoers have long been inured to.
But essentializing the unwritten rituals of courtship as another theatrical convention is not inherently profound. Even when paired with the age-old knowledge that men and women don’t really know how to talk to each other, it barely sparks the imagination. Worse, the vague pretentiousness that pervades the show doesn’t play like a sociological comment - its ever-lurching presence, which is embodied with visible unease by the actors, instead seems like the expected outgrowth of attempting to unite naturally incompatible ideas.
Patterson also teaches nothing concrete about the differences between the genders, or for that matter the differences between those who work onstage and those who work off. Her play feels like the grandest-scale embodiment of what its characters are experiencing: a play with something to say, but not the vocabulary needed to express it. “You can never have too many happy endings,” Olivia enthuses at one point, but from the opening scene the conclusion is seldom in doubt. It’s the lack of a beginning, a middle, and especially a center that keeps Fluency unintelligible.
Run Time: 50 minutes