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Lysistrata Jones

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Lysistrata Jones
Josh Segarra and Patti Murin.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Sports are rightly less revered for the emotional engagement they provide (which is usually nil) than for the primal thrills they’re capable of injecting into every fiber of your being. For this reason, they’re not natural partners for a stage musical: On a field, rink, or court, it doesn’t matter so much if the action is frenetic and fractured, or if the acoustics are so bad you can’t hear anything beyond the occasional guttural shout. But in the theatre, these can be deal-breakers. And, alas, they’re present in extravagant quantities in Lysistrata Jones, the new Transport Group musical that just opened at the Gym at Judson at NYU. Librettist Douglas Carter Beane, composer Lewis Flinn, and director-choreographer Dan Knechtges have assembled a show aimed squarely at people who aren’t sure whether they want to watch ESPN or MTV, but who couldn’t care less about getting a satisfying play.

Not that its provenance isn’t genuine. As the title indicates, this is a loose adaptation of Aristophanes’s classic Greek comedy Lysistrata. It’s set in Athens University, where the basketball team, the Spartans, hasn’t won a match in 30 years. Lysistrata (Patti Murin), the girlfriend of team captain Mick (Josh Segarra), convinces her gal pals to stop “giving it up” to their dribbling boyfriends until they finally get their act together enough to win just one game in the current season. This frustrates everyone and sets Lysistrata on the path to ostracization. But it also gets the navel-gazing kids wondering if maybe — gasp! — there’s more to life than sex and they’d be better off seeking love instead. Whether the Spartans win a game only when they realize this is a “secret” that won’t be revealed here.

Beane, whose recent stage work has included another Ancient Greece–invades–today musical (Xanadu) and more giddily urbane comedies (like The Little Dog Laughed), delivers some smart jokes across a wide swath of contemporary topics, from law to literature to technology. And if you always hate seeing a modernization of an old play filled with people who have no knowledge of how their life is imitating someone else’s art, you’ll love a lot of the choices Beane makes here. He doesn’t precisely justify each and every use of traditional characters and plot elements — both acts begin with literal (and extraneous) Greek choruses, for example, presided over by Hetaira (Liz Mikel), a mountainously buxom courtesan who also serves as the narrator — but he generally keeps such homages to a nondestructive minimum. Unfortunately, that’s true of almost nothing else, as the rest of the creative team have dumped enough stereotypical devices into the show to make it feel like a dramatic landfill even when it’s being moderately adventurous.

The shuffling of romantic partners at the story’s center, with bookworm Robin (Lindsay Nicole Chambers) and liberal activist–turned–mascot Xander (Jason Tam) rounding out the quartet, is yawn-inducingly schematic. Two of the male Spartans (Teddy Toye and Max Kumengai) discovering with each other that maybe they don’t need women after all is a sputtering conciliation to equal opportunity. And hasn’t the notion of a white player (Alex Wyse) running around blabbering nonsense in an urban-black dialect and constantly referring to his would-be lover (Kat Nejat) as a “ho” already been done to death? Add in Knechtges’s overemphatic direction and choreography, which trades almost entirely on out-of-breath athleticism for its moves but never manages to say anything, and Flinn’s songs, which are so violently peppy it’s hard to shake the feeling the entire collection could have been harvested from Legally Blonde’s slush pile, and you have an evening that is downright vicious in its attempts to unleash feel-good fun.

At least it doesn’t look bad: Allen Moyer’s fanciful set elements blend in seamlessly with the setting; and the costumes (by David Woolard and Thomas Charles LeGalley) convey free-thinking university attire with a broad grin. (Michael Gottlieb has designed the acceptable, but undistinguished, lighting.) Sound, however, is another matter: The cavernous, sound-sucking properties of the gym venue force the actors to shout every line (or, at any rate, do nothing to discourage such behavior); the aggressive amplification, courtesy of distracting cheek-hugging microphones from sound designer Tony Meola), makes an awful situation even worse, muddying things up so much that you’ll be lucky if you catch every seventh word (particularly if two or more actors are singing at the same time).

Murin is the most successful performer, though even her split-second detours into pathos provide scant respite from the automaton-like upbeat attitude each cast member presents. They all radiates likeability, but it’s all of the hard-as-lead, surface-level variety. We can’t get to know any of them as people, because they’re not people. They’re props, primed to be moved into place for this gag or that effect, but never allowed to show what Beane seems to be trying to get at: how separation from disconnected physical intimacy affects them both on and off the court. Aristophanes’s version shocks even today with all its bawdy fun, but in that work he never lost sight that everything was in service of a deadly serious point — and thus achieved through frivolity both humanity and humanism.

By turning that deeply considered story into one that’s much more shallow, Beane attains neither. Lysistrata Jones does not want for laughs, color, or kineticism. But in bringing Aristophanes into the 21st century, Beane and his collaborators have either forgotten or ignored one absolutely essential quality that was sung about in the more famous — and far better — sports musical, Damn Yankees: “You gotta have heart.”


Lysistrata Jones
Through June 19
The Gym at Judson, 243 Thompson Street at Washington Square South
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix