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Damon and Debra
Gutter Star: The Paperback Musical
part of
The New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC)

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Damon and Debra

The MTA is hardly the organization to look to for heavy-duty philosophizing, unless it’s about its powers-that-be trying to justify jacking up fares. Yet in Damon and Debra, Judy Chicurel’s new play at the New York International Fringe Festival, a stalled mid-afternoon B train looks to be the fastest way for promoting thoughtful discussion and racial and social harmony between its title characters (played, respectively, by Julito McCullum and Michelle H. Zangara).

Damon is a 21-year-old black man from Harlem, who’s trying to escape the violence of his multiple-foster-parent, drug-runner past by working as a medical transport technician and hopefully eventually becoming a nurse. Debra is a Brooklyn-based white woman who’s just been diagnosed with breast cancer, which has killed several other women in her family, and doesn’t plan to seek potentially debilitating treatment. Both insist that they’re accepting and all-inclusive, but tend to display some innate racial biases - or, at least, what the other can perceive as such - that suggest the two still have a lot to learn about the way the world and other people work.

The play, which is ably if unexcitingly directed by the Audelco-nominated actress-director-producer Passion, is not especially enlightening or compelling; much like the subway car in which it’s set, it barely moves. Worse, it’s almost too textbook in terms of its structure, complete with references to Debra’s favorite book, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, that Damon isn’t sure he could ever learn anything from. This issue, like so many others, utterly lacks suspense - it's a fait accompli the pair won’t get where they’re going until they iron out their differences, and Chicurel hardly uses the express route to get them there. Other atmospheric touches, such as mentioning that the action occurring an indeterminate amount of time after the destruction of the World Trade Center, are dropped in without explanation.

But even if this is a too-schematic look class, race, and relationships in present-day New York City, the characters are sufficiently complex figures around whom to construct a 75-minute conversation, and McCullum and Zangara make it one worth listening to. They share a strong chemistry, Damon’s streetwise vernacular and hunched-shoulder carriage a fitting and potent contrast to the stuffy, almost regal bearing that Debra’s disease is slowly sucking away. The actors, in fact, are good enough to allow Chicurel’s play to make its point in spite of itself: The deepest connections are most frequently made where you never expect them. That message would likely be even stronger if the rest of the show containing it weren’t so predictable.

Damon and Debra
1 hour 30 minutes
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TheaterMania


Gutter Star: The Paperback Musical

Normally you feel sorry for an understudy who’s forced to spell an irreplaceable star, or who was obviously shoved into a difficult role with too little rehearsal. But Walt Frasier, who stepped into a secondary role at the performance I attended of Gutter Star: The Paperback Musical, gave the best-sung and most assured performance to be found in the show. The only reason to feel bad for him is that he had to go on at all in one of the most shambolic musicals yet at this year’s Fringe Festival.

Jack Dyville (book), James Mack Avery (music), and David Gillam Fuller (lyrics and, more notably, the originator of Frasier’s role) are attempting to tell a steamy old-Hollywood story about a poor-girl-made-good movie starlet named Darla Storme, whose career-making role as the title character in the religious epic The Book of Ruth is torpedoed by her romance with a female singer at the all-girl Coconut Club.

Admittedly, that has promise. But the story is handled with bewildering triteness, complete with simpering paparazzi, a cross-dressing studio lackey that infiltrates the Coconut Club’s chorus line, and on-the-sleeve moralizing that would make most Studio System products look like Fight Club. And the songs are greasily terrible, in both their subject matter and tasteless treatment of the plot (one is a woebegone comedy number called “A Life of Lesbian Love,” another features every character speaking simultaneously and incomprehensibly into telephones) as well as their distractingly poor rhyming (“femme fatales” and “gal,” “Brenda” and “defend her,” and “men” and “lesbian” are typical couplets).

I’ll spare the other actors and the director any association with this show. But for his bravura turn as Darla’s friend-and-protector studio head, Frasier deserves credit: His supple baritone and confident manner gave the show an anchoring dramatic weight it wasn’t getting from any of its other elements the night I saw it. Frasier proved that it’s possible for a polished and prepared performer to look like brightly burnished gold even in surroundings that are, at best, 100 percent lead.

Gutter Star: The Paperback Musical
55 minutes
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TheaterMania