The Grecian Formula
@lice in www.onderland
New York International Fringe Festival - FringeNYC
Why does college graduation convince those who survive it that they’re the only ones who ever have? Maybe it’s just our increasingly youth-oriented culture, but it seems like ever more plays and musicals are obsessed with what happens once we finally leave the nest of institutional education. So as soon as Patrick Flynn’s Untitled Masterpiece evokes that as its core subject, you might think this show is signaling trouble from its first scene.
Not quite. While writer-director Flynn doesn’t have much more on his mind, he’s at least unafraid to deliver an unusually spiced variation of this familiar dish. Specifically, the new grad at the play’s center, Joseph K. Meursault (Neil Casey), is the unabashed lead in the sitcom of his life: a “show” that also counts wacky roommates (who play to a laugh track), stolid bosses, and mysteriously beautiful women among its characters. And as Joseph works to come to terms with himself, so too does he discover that the show-business of real life isn’t at all what it’s cracked up to be.
All Joseph wants is to be “extraordinary” (not easy when all you have to offer is a degree in communications), to find a good job and to have a meaningful relationship, forsaking the laziness and easy sex that see some people through their 20s and beyond. His single-minded determination to make more of himself than others request gives Untitled Masterpiece an uncommonly powerful dramatic thrust. Even when dinner and bedroom play are treated with game-show glitz, a just-there tremor of reality always keeps them tethered to the rest of the show.
The meta almost takes over in the final scene, when Joseph’s spurning a scorching feminine slut (Melanie Waldron) for a quiet girl in the background (Gina Poletti) inspires too much chaos for a play constructed on gentle metaphors. So too is the conclusion rushed, chopped off by a blackout before a real resolution is enforced - especially unnecessary, as the play runs a mere 55 minutes.
But if Untitled Masterpiece fizzles at the finish, its highly adaptable company misses none of Flynn’s pungent laugh lines while getting there. Casey is a solidly schlubby straight man, a fittingly unassuming fulcrum around which the world can revolve; Mike Gregorek firmly flops between Neil’s sex-obsessed roommate and Type-A coworker, providing a concrete vision of two men Neil doesn’t want to become; Burl Moseley is flamboyantly funny as a Southern African-American Hasidic Bisexual; and Waldron and Poletti nicely persuade as the women.
Matthew C. Hartman brings a supple, sonorous voice to a series of announcers who narrate Neil’s rocky evolution from boy to man. Flynn makes it clear it’s a journey Joseph isn’t ready for. Few are - it’s too scary for most to plan ahead of time. But Untitled Masterpiece is more interesting than most plays at showing the importance of a well-drawn map to bring along.
Run Time: 1 hour
That the Ancient Greeks are better remembered today for their tragedies than for their comedies does not automatically mean that Athens wasn’t once the Hellenic capital of hilarity. But depending on those plays’ quality, one might be able to understand why they eventually turned to Medea, Electra, and Antigone: Nothing, but nothing, is grimmer than a comedy that isn’t funny. And The Grecian Formula, Carter Anne McGowan’s lugubrious lark on the establishment of theatre, isn’t funny.
The joke, such as it is, is that there truly are no new ideas, and even the most ridiculous aspects of today’s Broadway have come and gone countless times before. So when Athenian leader Peisistratus (Anthony Cochrane) spearheads the creation of a theatre festival, he immediately obsesses over stuffing the venue with extra seats, tacking elaborate convenience charges onto every sale, and selling premium tickets to the wealthy who are too dopey to know better.
Laughing yet? If not, try this thigh-slapper: Peisistratus charges Thespiotis (Kevin Carolan) with writing a blockbuster for the inaugural competition, a task he passes off to his slave Alidocious (Todd Lawson) in exchange for freeing Alidocious’s daughter Iphigenia. But when Alidocious can’t scribe the required wrist-slitter because of his charmed life, Thespiotis arranges Alidocious’s wife Caligone (Jolly Abraham) to falsely forswear her love to lure out Alidocious’s inner tragedian.
This side of the story, one presumes, was intended to be serious. But a blind prophet named Ikon (Nick Sullivan) predicting 2008’s roster of stage entertainment, a grumpy revolutionary-turned-critic (Rich Affannato) with a checkered past, and citations of shampoo commercials alongside pun-laden play titles make it impossible for McGowan or director Mary Jo Lodge to reconcile the show’s competing tones. Dramatic scenes can’t gain traction with the laughs lingering so heavily in the background, and the funny scenes turn on too many lame anachronisms that are poor substitutes for wit. (Ooh, Thespiotis dons a white half-face mask to play a ghost. How daring.)
Abraham almost manages to wring a characterization from Caligone, playing her with an unadorned honesty that sets her apart from the constipated preening that passes for acting elsewhere in the company. And there’s one clever bit near the end of the festival montage that finds Greek versions of The Glass Menagerie, Death of a Salesman, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and August: Osage County colliding in a strangely sharp parody of timeless familial angst. Unfortunately, the scene also reminds you of four plays that better balanced comedy and tragedy. But at least it’s one time in The Grecian Formula that a gag is something more than just gagworthy.
Run Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
What a fabulous beginning! A young woman, shrouded in shadows, sitting before a river and relaxing with a laptop while a disembodied voice recites in crisp British tones: “Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do.” An all-white figure flashes by and the girl gives chase, to be seen only briefly on a large projection screen before she’s falling... falling... falling…
“Thud. That’s the sound @lice in www.onderland, the dire dance recital choreographed and directed by Celeste Ballard, Maggie Burrows, and Allegra Long, makes once Alice (Tessa Williams) lands at the bottom of the rabbit hole on the fringes of the World Wide Web.
The point of the piece is that while children once found their fantasy in imagination, today they unearth it on the shoulders of the Information Superhighway. But this show’s goals are apparently to provoke and posture rather than present this idea, and its vision of the Web is one of an ugly, jagged dystopia in which all of humanity stews in its own juices - a far cry from Lewis Carroll’s original whimsical satire, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Tweedledum and Tweedledee are hip-hop graffiti artists. A quartet of flowers and the Queen of Hearts are online sex workers who vamp in every way except sending out poorly written spam e-mails. The caterpillar, two dancers swathed in green and yellow and writhing about on the floor, has traded in his hookah for stronger drugs that make him even more antisocial. The Cheshire Cat tap dances in trendy half-light. Williams herself, costumed by Jillian Coratti (Mona Elsayed also contributed), looks like she resigned from the Liddell Brothel on the outskirts of Las Vegas.
Maya Stiles-Royall’s video design utilizes live action and static graphics (by Jennifer Kahn and John Lee) to provide some splashy kinetic color - as the dances tend to ooze aimlessly rather than develop, paced through by over a dozen charisma-free performers (including the creators), your eye drifts to it often. Your mind, likewise, will flash back to the opening scene, which amazingly survived the workshop phase: Carroll’s opening paragraph alone is infused with class and creativity that has been stamped out anywhere and everywhere else.
Run Time: 1 hour