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The Last Detail

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Sometimes adding music to a play can help make things more clear; sometimes it can obscure what's already there and working. While intentions are good throughout The Last Detail, the play that Neil Genzlinger has adapted from Darryl Ponicsan's novel and that Michael Weitz has directed at the Fringe Festival, this uneasy play-musical hybrid tries to do - and be - too much for its own good.

At the very least, it's an amiable, likable effort that entertains without ever cutting too deeply. It's even essentially successful as both a drama and a comedy, with Genzlinger telling the story of two Navy sailors escorting a third to a prison in Portsmouth, New Hampshire: he's to serve eight years for stealing money from a leukemia contribution box. The production is also well cast, well directed, and well designed (Lowell Pettit did the sets, Janice DeVito the costumes, Brendan Gray the lights, and Fluid Post the sound).

What The Last Detail is not, however, is a musical, and the attempts to force it into one are really what prevent it from achieving its fullest potential. The songs, by Julia Darling and Andrew Sherman, aren't really integrated into the action; they're interludes, ostensibly related to the characters singing them, but not firmly wedded to them. The ten or so songs, none of which are particularly memorable, were obviously added to provide additional atmosphere and humor to the show, and at that generally achieve their goals.

Unfortunately, they also have the unintended side-effect of killing almost all of the momentum Genzlinger generates. Time plays an important role in the journey of the sailors - it's not as insurmountable an obstacle as in On the Town, but the fact that the three men have only scant hours to spend on any leg of their trip is a vital element to the story's tension and ultimate conclusion, when the ravages and limitations of time make their full force known. When stage time is being frittered away through the songs - and an unnecessary intermission - it's almost like a dramatic betrayal.

This is especially unfortunate as so much else about the show and the performances is quite engaging: The rapport the three sailors - Billy Buddusky (Mason Pettit), "Mule" Mulhall (Kevin Mambo), and Lawrence Meadows (Tom Shillue) have with each other; the hilarious scene rising out of the three men visiting Meadows's mother (Mary Testa); the remnants of a tender relationship between Buddusky and his ex-wife Charlotte (Julie Dingman); and even the direction, so effective as to bring to life each of the cities the men visit with no more than well-chosen lights and boxes for set pieces.

All the performers do admirably, though Mambo and Testa turn in the most memorable performances. Pettit also does well, though he occasionally seems to be channeling Jack Nicholson, who played the same role in the 1973 film version of Ponicsan's story. No one, however, emerges from the songs unscathed. Even Testa, about as experienced and talented a musical performer as you're likely to find, can't sell her big solo to save her life.

Granted, she's forced to pull back and not sing it full out - one of the production's most unfortunate choices - but she's allowed to let herself go while playing comedy, and to brilliant effect. So why not here? The simplest answer is likely that Weitz didn't want her singing to detract from the other actors (no one else sings remotely as well as she does) or, perhaps more likely, the play itself. The music, however, is more than distracting enough, and Genzlinger doesn't apparently need its help.

One of the first steps in creating a musical is to spot the songs: Where do characters need to sing, and why? One of the first steps in rescuing the strong play currently imprisoned within this mediocre musical should be to unspot the songs and realize that - with the engaging story and dialogue Genzlinger has already provided - the people in The Last Detail are singing enough without them.

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NY International Fringe Festival
The Last Detail
Through August 28
Running Time: 2 hours, with one 10-minute intermission
Lucille Lortel Theatre, 212 Christopher Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.279.4488