The Complete Performer
The Boy in the Basement
If you like your parody hard-boiled and your satire torrid, Katharine Heller’s “live-action romance novel” The Boy in the Basement will probably be right down your valley. Peppered with bondage, a shrieking virgin, and (at times) a scandalous little thing called love, it finds a snug, heavy-breathing home in one of modern (ahem) literature’s most absurdly felt genres.
It is, however, perhaps too eager to evoke its own sources. Heller hasn’t so much adapted bodice-rippers’ florid wordplay as replicated it outright. The story, about four college women who confront a burglar and force him to become their sex slave, unfolds entirely from the mind and (literal) quill of the author scribing it all into an especially sticky tome: Elroy Eisner (Nick Fondulis), writing under the pen name Catherine DuCheval.
This gives the play an astringent quality that doesn’t help its jokes land with full force. And that extra layer of unreality is just enough to shake the foundations of an overwritten evening that, at least under Nell Balaban’s direction, is also vividly overperformed. Meghan Powe (as the virgin), Lynne Rosenberg (as the slut), Anna Stumpf (as the hippie), Heller herself (as the, uh, Venezuelan), Tom Macy (as the title character), and Michael Solis (as the other man) strut through their roles with all the proper pregnant pauses, steam-drenched indignation, and sideways glances their percolating passion demands. But you always sense they’re floating above the material, not living it organically - which, one suspects, would be far more humorous.
Fact, fiction, and funny blend most successfully when the focus is on “Catherine,” as it’s with him that Heller and Balaban’s sympathies most obviously lie. The orgasmic ecstasy he derives from employing certain lurid turns of phrase or spinning out blood-racing plot points suggests his own outlook on (and experience with) sex is far different from what he’s committing to paper. Fondulis smothers his portrayal with sweat, grease, and a layer of longing for the world he’s creating but clearly has never been a part of himself.
Fondulis and “Catherine” so completely embrace the trashy trope of the nerd living out long-unstated fantasies that they suggest a far meatier play outside the covers of Heller’s book. The boy in the basement should probably stay there - the few clues we get about what's going on upstairs seem to have far richer potential.
Running Time: 1 hour 15 minutes
Magic, like theatre, can’t exist without an audience. But it’s rare for the audience to be not just an active participant, but the main character. That’s the oddly quirky, yet uncomfortably endearing, premise behind Ted Greenberg’s The Complete Performer: Greenberg’s act (if you believe him) or his shtick (if you don’t) is that he’s a magician-comedian so bad or so desperate that he’s going to let his paying customers do his work for him.
For their benefit, he’s hired a dancing, miming mascot who might have just stepped off of a football field. He’s got a bottomless arsenal of ways of accosting, insulting, and thus captivating the audience - both during and before the show. And his tricks are so hastily-copied-from-library-books lame that you can’t help but be in his corner the instant he has the audacity to unfurl them. Numbers that look like words, utterly talentless improvisation, and playing cards decorated with (among other things) dickeys and, shall we say, suggestive pants are usually eschewed by serious artists.
He forces you to work feverishly to keep up with him and create the conjurer he’s trying to be - he’s sort of a “stand-up” version of the newscaster “character” Jon Stewart plays on The Daily Show: real, and yet not. As such, it’s hard not to get roped into his manically original point of view: It may be a thin thread from which to support an evening, but Greenberg’s ridiculousness is so much and his show is so short (30 minutes) that it proves to be enough.
Never before have I seen a musician wax rhapsodic about the sexual suggestiveness of turtlenecks or certain playing cards, use escaping from manacles as an excuse for escaping from his clothing, or holding an awards ceremony for the audience before the evening’s end. Frankly, I hope never to again - a gambit like this can’t work unless its purveyor goes all the way. Magicians and comics spin their strongest webs by maintaining control over those watching them, not relinquishing it to those same people. But because Greenberg knows he doesn’t belong, he’s able to encourage - if not outright require - you to join him on the outside looking in.
Running Time: 30 minutes