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Vital Signs: New Works Festival
Series Three

Theatre Review by Lindsey Wilson

Just as it should be, the final week of Vital Signs at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre is by far the strongest collection of plays seen in the entire festival. An even and balanced mix of satire and solemnity, the third series encompasses topics ranging from death to homosexuality to religion — and no, those aren’t only the serious plays. Suspense plays out a farcical, familial murder plot while Jesus Hates You introduces us to a couple who does a little murdering of their own (all in the name of the Lord, of course). A riveting ten minutes of September 11 is addressed in Falling, and the staggering importance of a cheap drugstore umbrella is revealed in Overhead. These four plays remind the audience what is important about new plays: that a moment of sheer astonishment can come from an unexpected source.

Ian Finley’s Suspense doesn’t take itself too seriously, and neither should we. The affectated blathering of a wealthy and obviously unhinged family concerns the plans for doing each other in while doing each other. Plans that are so intricate and ludicrous that there’s no possible way they would ever succeed in the real world . . . but here seem quite plausible. While the two men (Damian Buzziero as Victor and Paul Romanello as Rudolph) lack the same luster flaunted by the two women, they nonetheless dive headfirst into the wacky actions of their brotherly characters. As martini-swigging, lip-curling Agatha, Julie Evan Smith exhibits the dry humor that makes her patently cruel statements towards her daughter laughable instead of just downright mean. Stealing the stage, however, is Nancy Jacobs as the sniveling, nasal-voiced daughter Emiline, hilarious by just staring out blankly from behind her glasses. This murder mystery gone awry scores big with its utter lack of pretension and acceptance of the absurd.

My initial emotions towards the opening of Falling were that of watching prisoners clawing with destructive madness at their confinement. Realizing that the frantic and terrifying first seconds were reliving the horrible moments when the planes crashed into the Twin Towers caused me to stop breathing for a moment. Allowing his characters to only speak in halting words for the first part of the play is a wise choice by playwright William Borden — these people have just experienced something that is beyond the powers of ordinary speech. With this lack of dialogue it falls to director Aimee Hayes to visually create the action, and she delivers both a powerful and haunting scene of three of the people who decided to jump from the building. During that ten second leap, Reina (Rachel Burttram) and Zaki (Amir Darvish) connect on a level that surpasses race, religion, love, and beliefs. Choosing to jump on his own, Christian (Tom Moglia) extracts sympathy and pity. So much has been written about September 11 and its effects, but this very short moment of a play manages to convey the quiet terror felt by all that morning with dignity and grace.

Jesus Hates You is a smart, sassy, and satirical jab at society’s views on religion’s impact on homosexuality. Ex-Bob and Ex-Trish are two Ex-Gays about to celebrate their one-year anniversary of marriage, so happy they could just bust and still avoiding the big wedding night. After discovering Jesus and The Good Book, and faithfully attending their Ex-Gay meetings, Trish and Bob have worked diligently to suppress their natural tendencies. It’s such a delight to watch Amy Bizjak and Peter Herrick uncomfortably admonish each other whenever a mannish stance or limp wrist slips out, knowing full well their denouncement of Kenneth Cole heels (for Peter) and comfortable clothing (for Trish) is driving them crazy. If playwright Robert Shaffron were to just present this as a silly little skit about the perils of strict religion, it would still be worthwhile, but he takes it a full two steps further. Ellen DeGeneres’ mother just happens to be wandering by and stops in to try and convince the couple to simply be themselves, because "Jesus loves you for who you are." Oddly enough, Wynne Anders as the famous mom doesn’t feel out of place here, but veers the piece toward more of a Saturday Night Live format. That is quickly remedied by the ever-present wedding cake that serves its lethal excuse for not having sex with each other, but not before Trish and Peter remind each other "Jesus hates you."

To close out the festival is Kellie Overbey’s Overhead, a definitive example of how to re-evaluate your life and problems. As the loud-mouthed and crass New York car salesman Ollie, Marty Grabstein may make you wonder if he didn’t elbow you out of the way on the sidewalk this morning. He’s so rude there’s almost a perverse pleasure in knowing he might lose his job if he doesn’t get back to the dealership in time, a strange joy knowing that his wife left him, and an even bigger pleasure watching him get soaked to the bone trying to outrun a downpour. The unfortunate gentleman that gets stuck next to him, however, is Kayode (a compelling Michael Anthony Walker), the possessor of an umbrella precisely when Ollie is desperate for one. This piece is about more than the material items valued by two men, though, and director Linda Ames Key expertly draws out the heartbreaking tale of Kayode’s morning and the subsequent revelation had by Ollie. This piece is like a slap in the face, a grounding and humbling experience that is exactly the perfect note to go out on.

Of the fifteen short plays presented over three weeks by the Vital Theatre Company, the amount that triumphed soared over the few that flopped. For this, it would be a true please to become reacquainted with some of the works as they hopefully go on to find larger reincarnations.

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Vital Theatre Company
Vital Signs: New Works Festival
Series One: December 2 - 5
Series Two: December 9 - 12
Series Three: December 16 - 19
Vital Theatre Company, McGinn/Cazale Theatre above the Promenade, 2162 Broadway on the 4th Floor at 76th Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.352.3101