The term “serial theatre” might have different meanings to different people: For one it might mean seeing one show multiple times, for another it might mean feeding a virulent addiction by seeing hundreds of shows a year. But Naked in a Fishbowl, now playing at the Soho Playhouse as part of the New York International Fringe Festival, takes the term literally.
Like 1930s film shorts or a television series (particularly a soap opera), each fully improvised performance of Naked in a Fishbowl is different from, but connected to, all that has come before. Unless you’ve been following it fanatically since its 2004 inception, when it was titled What Women Talk About, and through workshop runs at The Tank and two seasons at the Kraine Theatre, you’ve missed much of the show, and can’t easily get it back. But unlike arriving after the opening number of a musical or the first scene of a tense drama, here you’re never left out in the cold.
I arrived at the penultimate Fringe Festival performance never having seen a single “episode,” and with only a vague recollection of the show’s earlier incarnations. And as the first of three scenes began, with Sara (Katharine Heller), Sophie (Brenna Palughi), Jean (Lynne Rosenberg), and Bonnie (Lauren Seikaly) boarding a bus for the Hamptons art show on which Sara would be reporting, I began to worry that I was in for a generic joke-fest themed more like Who’s Line Is it Anyway? than 24.
But as the performance unfolded, I soon felt that I was in the company of old friends from whom I’d spent some time apart, and just needed a brief game of catch-up to get back up to speed on their lives. Bonnie is married, a mother, a casting director, and filthy rich. The ditzy blonde, Sophie, is soon planning a move to Italy. Sara’s a former drug addict and current blabbermouth. Jean’s life is devoted to Excel spreadsheets, and her caustic sense of humor brands her as the female version of South Park’s lovably loathsome fourth grader, Eric Cartman.
The actresses recall, and frequently reference, earlier events that help give the show the texture of a carefully plotted comedy. Because they’ve worked together so closely for so long, their rapport and timing are assured and ironclad: I was astonished at the sheer number of solid, legitimate jokes they unleashed with fastball speed and impeccable aim. A couple even sent the performers into what looked like fits of unexpected laughter. While it’s possible some of the gags were repeats, their spontaneity and contextual freshness made them seem wholly and only of the moment.
But there was serious drama, too, in the plight of Jean, who revealed herself as a recovering alcoholic struggling through the most difficult days of her life. Very smoothly, yet also very believably, Rosenberg moved from barbed wisecracks into sobbing like a frightened child; the relationships between the women were so sharply defined that the aftermath of Jean’s revelation encompassed hope, disappointment, betrayal, acceptance, and uncertainty, with each friend playing a crucial role along Jean’s road to recovery. Surely a master dramatist and not four quick-thinking improv artists were at the helm?
No, the only billed members of the creative team are director Hugh Sinclair and co-creator Wayne Parillo, both of whom have filled their roles so capably it’s impossible to pinpoint what either has done. Naked in a Fishbowl seems to live entirely in the theater as you watch it, building upon and improving itself, fulfilling part of a larger picture while providing an hour’s worth of solid laughs and, when necessary, honest sentiment, whether you’ve been tracking it since the beginning or you’re coming to it for the first time.
Either way, you can’t know what you’ll see or where it will go, and if you fall into the latter category, you probably won’t be at all sure where it came from. But by the end, you’ll intimately understand what makes these women both tick and talk, and you’ll likely be hankering for a second helping to see if they can really can do it all over again - exactly the same, yet the completely different. In that respect, at least, Naked in a Fishbowl is one of the most exciting kinds of theatre possible.
Naked in a Fishbowl