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Young Zombies in Love

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

I've often been puzzled why Wes Craven's Scream films needed to be parodied by the Wayans brothers in their Scary Movie series - how many times can you pile take-offs on top of one another? Damian Hess and Gaby Alter apparently believed the horror genre could support another level or two of complication, and created Young Zombies in Love, playing at the Fringe Festival.

The catch, of course, is that this show - a production of the San Francisco Bay Area theatre company, Emerald Rain Productions - is a musicalization of the Scary Movie style of film, with a bit of Buffy the Vampire Slayer thrown in for good measure. There's nothing inherently wrong with the premise, familiar ground though it may be, but the execution is so predictable and underwhelming that this adolescent spin on an already tired genre feels painfully familiar after playing for just five minutes. (The running time, it should be noted, is 90 minutes.)

The show is peppered with mock-rock and faux-pop numbers (written by Alter) that don't really articulate the characters or advance the story; instead they're interludes, thematically related but not truly integrated. Given the broad performing style used by all of the actors, and the almost unbearable volume at which most of the numbers are shrieked and blared at the audience (no sound designer is credited), this feels like less of a musical than a concert with backup singers and dancers (billed in the program as the "Chorus of the Accurs'd" and "the Stolid Cold Dancers"), into which a few skits have been haphazardly inserted.

Hess's story, such as it is, focuses on two high-school seniors, Nick and Lu (Daniel Zaitchik and Erica Ash), who are in love but feel threatened by the disappearances of their classmates. When it becomes clear that the dead are turning into zombies and attempting to take over the city (Tomb Town), Nick and Lu want to stop it, but can't convince most of the adults (including Lu's mother, played by Cynthia Pierce, and the town sheriff, played by Lawrence Feeney) to take the threat seriously. How the story ends won't be spoiled here, but the show's title can give you a pretty good idea.

Hess occasionally pops off a few clever lines ("I shouldn't talk smack about the living dead"), but is generally more likely to wring cheap laughs out of the audience through techniques like having one character repeatedly say "an horde." (That line is delivered by Kevin Townley, giving one of the show's more memorable, if still over-the-top, performances.) Attempts to make the battle against the zombies seem politically relevant ("Real bravery lies in not combating menaces," and so on) generally fall flat. So do Alter's songs, which may be acceptable pop tunes, but contain enough false rhymes to throw musical theatre lovers into fits. (These include rhyming "girlfriends" with "whirlwinds" and "best" with "just.")

Director Jackson Gay always keeps the production's energy up and its attitude consistent, though the mood is always in danger of being dissipated by Joshua Carlson's insipid, music-video inspired choreography. Erik Flatmo's set, Jenny Mannis's costumes, and Thomas Dunn's lights all provide minimal visual thrills, but serve the material as well as could be expected. So do the actors, for the most part, though they seem to have been hired for their comic acumen more than their singing voices. Of course, as today's pop music proves, you don't need to be a great singer - or, most of the time, even a good one - to have a career, so it can't really be said anyone is miscast.

Nor, however, is anyone doing particularly exceptional work; however, once the show's central joke wears off, how can the comedy really increase in intensity? Uneven as the Scary Movie films are, the Wayans brothers are capable of finding and building up at least a few new jokes to keep the laughs coming throughout; Hess and Alter seem to lose interest about halfway through. Audiences at Young Zombies in Love can't be blamed if they do, as well.

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New York International Fringe Festival
Young Zombies in Love
Through August 28
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Players Theatre, 115 Macdougal Street between 3rd and Bleecker
Schedule and Tickets: 212.279.4488