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In The Wings

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

New Yorkers lead notoriously busy lives, and dedicated theatergoers even busier ones. If you're finding time too scarce to take care of tasks too minor or mundane for your lunch hour, or that require less noise and movement than a typical subway ride, the opportunity you've been looking for has at long last arrived: In The Wings.

Yes, Stewart F. Lane's new play at the Promenade is that rare, exquisite chance to grab two hours of serenity in an almost perfectly silent, well-mannered environment. The play's running time has been perfectly apportioned to allow you to finish paying your monthly bills, complete that crossword puzzle you haven't had time for, or just steal a nap before a busy evening.

Lane, director Jeremy Dobrish, and four of the production's five actors all do their share to contribute to a laid-back atmosphere more reminiscent of a library in 1950 than a New York apartment in 1977, the show's specified setting. (The scenic design, appropriately kitschy, is by William Barclay.) Sadly, someone forgot to tell Marilyn Sokol that eliciting laughter is discouraged, and that nothing exciting - or even moderately interesting - should ever happen onstage; her appearances, albeit infrequent, suggest that she's on hand to entertain people. In other words, she's in the wrong theater.

Personally, I'd much rather see whatever play she thinks she's acting in. This one is some nonsense about two young actors, Melinda (Lisa Datz) and Steve (Josh Prince), living together and struggling for their big break, which eventually comes in the form of an Off-Off-Broadway showcase of a musical called I Married a Communist. The show, written by the Russian-rambling Bernardo (Peter Scolari), allows Steve to play a tap-dancing Roy Cohn and Melinda a Russian... oh, what difference does it make?

The only thing that does make a difference is Sokol, who as the Jewish Steve's nagging mother Martha makes herself a charmingly intrusive presence during her brief onstage stints. There's a wackiness about her, yes, but it's infused with a few embers of genuine warmth and a real concern for her son's well-being. She wears the dizzily uncoordinated costumes Mattie Ullrich has designed as a badge of honor, a testament to supreme individuality and a diehard devotion to tackiness. But she makes it all work.

Even these layers of characterization - extraordinarily thin, because Lane gives her nothing else to work with - are enough to give Martha a depth that makes her stand out from her castmates. Prince and Datz are one-dimensional at best and annoying worst; Scolari's just annoying all the time, bringing the energy down while thinking he's bringing it up. Brian Henderson, playing another actor (eerily reminiscent of current film star Seann William Scott by way of Josh Hamilton in Hurlyburly), would need to come down a few notches to be just annoying, and would need to don a straitjacket to just be manic.

The few noteworthy attempts at actual comedy that don't come from Sokol also don't come from Lane: Michael Garin and Edward Strauss have written two songs and Scolari and Doug Maxwell one for the three glimpses we see of I Married a Communist. The songs are entertaining respites, brief diversions that help drown out Lane's stultifying words in a few minutes of music. But with "jokes" like "He remains unique in the anals of comedy," and "As we say in show business, 'That's show business,'" even Tristan und Isolde would be insufficient.

In terms of quality, the songs provided here aren't appreciably better than the play surrounding them, and despite lines like "You've been through an enormous pseudo-Slavic day in court," there's not enough concrete evidence on hand to discern whether I Married a Communist is actually supposed to be any good. Of In The Wings, though, there is never the slightest doubt.

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In The Wings
Running Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission
Promenade Theatre, 2162 Broadway at West 76th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge