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Tea in a Tempest
and
Mad Mel and the Marradians
part of the
Midtown International Theatre Festival

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Tea in a Tempest

Societal deference and blind self-actualization get char-roasted in the first, surprisingly entertaining, portion of James V. O’Connor’s play Tea in a Tempest, which is playing as part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival. An apparently doting wife named Karen (Lynne Taylor) has gathered her husband Steven (Stuart Aion), daughter (Emilie Soffe), mother-in-law (Barbara Miluski), and two best friends (Tom Wardach and Bobbi Owens) in her swank living room to deliver a ho-hum, happens-every-day kind of announcement: She’s getting a divorce. This wouldn’t be astonishing if not for the small detail that Steven is learning this at the same time as everyone else. Karen decided that since those in this group respect and value each other enough to make all their decisions collectively, they might as well give this minor one the same treatment.

As Karen trots out reason after reason to tame Steven’s outrage (she’s been unfulfilled for most of their 28 years together, he’s been cheating on her with various women for years, and so on), everyone’s justifications for their own participation quickly cascade, and are delivered by all these actors — as well as Olivia Horton as Steven’s current and brightest-burning mistress — with the tart, lacerating effect of long-suppressed annoyances finally being given flight. And as Steven keeps digging himself deeper and deeper, trying to fix the irreparably broken situation in ways that invariably make things worse, it looks as if O’Connor will be able to maintain the acidic insanity right until the very end.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t quite make it, and instead deploys a last-minute twist that because of the work’s fleeting length (under an hour) seems less a dynamic denouement than a desperate cry for unearned additional depth. O’Connor needn’t have bothered: Though the writing is at times rough around the edges and a shade overwrought in its characterizations, most of the time it’s clever and fun, standing up well enough on its own under Paula J. Riley’s laid-back direction and assured but uninspired performances that only fully bloom in Aion’s hilarious bewilderment and Taylor’s finely carved and reasoned exasperation. If some scenes have the pseudo-improvisational ring of a more convoluted episode of Seinfeld, the play retains its unique voice and personality even during its most generic moments.

Because the show is so brief, it lacks the time it needs to develop its arguments — or, for that matter, wear out its entire welcome. If the final minutes do sap much of the fun from the earlier edginess, forcing you to reconsider the action as a game of charades rather than a nuclear-powered roast, for the longer period of time in which Tea in a Tempest is brewing, it’s a welcome jolt of mid-summer theatrical caffeine. Tea in a Tempest
Running time: 55 minutes
The June Havoc Theatre - 312 W. 36th Street, first floor
Tickets and Current Performance Schedule: Ovation Tix


Mad Mel and the Marradians

“This play is a work of fiction based on fact based on fiction,” reads the “Historical Note” in the program for Mad Mel and the Marradians. “It will be left to the audience to decide what is going on. The cast gave up midway through rehearsals.” If this were almost any other play, these statements could be considered gross exaggerations, but for this bizarre science-fiction comedy, written by Gary Morgenstein (incidentally the communications director at Syfy, the former Sci-Fi Channel), they register as sacrosanct truths.

Basically, the story concerns a pulpy scholar named Melvin (Rob Gaines) who’s written literally hundreds of books about a fictional extra-terrestrial civilization called the Marradians that visited Earth several hundred centuries ago, based on texts apparently dug out of the ruins of ancient Sumer. Strangely, Melvin’s guesses have all been correct, or rather correct enough to worry the real Marradians who, upon discovering Melvin’s discovery from light years away, become determined to find out how he divined so much about them, and to ensure it doesn’t happen again — especially if their invasion unfolds as planned.

It all snowballs from there, with the Marradian advance team, Phlegm (Jordan Auslander) and Larynx (William Beckwith), traveling by portal to Melvin’s bedroom to bring him in line, preferably with the help of the nubile young women — both his official ghostwriter-girlfriend (Mary Riley) and do-anything admirer (Rachel Caccese) — who just keep getting in the way and getting their “channels” cleaned with toilet brushes. Things become full-on incomprehensible past the halfway point, once Melvin catches on to the Marradians’ schemes, but director Carlo Fiorletta has done commendable work keeping things as clear as possible. The acting is much more variable, with only Riley turning in the only fully fleshed-out performance as the woman behind the man who’s ready to take charge, though Auslander has a few choice physical-comedy bits as the alien underling.

Were I to venture a guess, I’d say this is all some sort of bizarre political allegory, as the letter W factors prominently into the plot, and one of the characters frets about being “palinized.” But with whole speeches slathered in faux-mythological minutiae and so much mushily recycled language trying to pass itself off as wit, confusion really seems to be the ultimate order of the day. Mad Mel and the Marradians would better make, uh, whatever points it’s trying to make with an extra dollop of clarity alongside its tortured narrative machinations. But if the play is far from completely satisfying comedically and dramatically, at least you can definitively say upon leaving it that you’ve never seen or heard anything like it before.

Mad Mel and the Marradians
Running time: 90 minutes
The June Havoc Theatre - 312 W. 36th Street, first floor
Tickets and Current Performance Schedule: Ovation Tix