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The Flying Karamazov Brothers: 4Play

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The Flying Karamazov Brothers: 4Play
Paul Magid, Rod Kimball, Stephen Bent, and Mark Ettinger.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Those who were delighted last year by the New York International Fringe Festival’s occupation of the Minetta Lane Theatre are the only ones likely to be disappointed by 4Play. The Flying Karamazov Brothers’s juggling extravaganza, which just reopened there after a limited-edition engagement earlier this year, means that lovers of August’s quintessential alternative theatre festival will be deprived of the ample comforts the choice Village venue affords. But even Fringegoers might be surprised at how much wacky fun they’ll derive from this expert, and unusually cerebral, 100-minute foray into the seldom-explored relationship between juggling, music, and humor.

The four guys (founder Paul Magid, Stephen Bent, Mark Ettinger, and Rod Kimball) aren’t content merely keeping aloft bowling pins, though they’re adept at doing so. Some of the show’s most glowing highlights include variations on just that trick — there’s the obligatory black-light number, for example; and in the crowner all four men weave around the stage, never ceasing with their throwing or their catching (a few acerbic quips are tossed in as well; they’re nimble with those, too). They also investigate melody, proving themselves crack instrumentalists on guitars, trombones, and trumpets. And when the sensibilities fuse, especially in the second act when all four play each other’s musical instruments and manage to juggle at the same time, you realize that 4Play doesn’t want you to think it’s any other, ahem, throwaway entertainment.

Not that the dialogue — of which there’s a surprising amount — would let you believe that anyway. The men’s meditations on physical coordination, the humanities, and the psychology of juggling itself scream that this isn’t another one of those language-averse larks (often outside the United States) that have filled Off-Broadway’s legit stages over the last several years. This is a smart show for smart people, particularly been-there-done-that New Yorkers who may underestimate the difficulty or meticulous craft of what the Brothers do. But when it comes time for the group to juggle a collection of nine “terror objects” — including a full-size meat cleaver, a flaming torch, and a block of dry ice — the show immediately ceases looking like something anyone could (or, for that matter, should) attempt.

The antics building up to that point are a bit uneven; Highland singing and a disturbing domestic drama (with the usually appealing Ettinger in appalling half-drag) are perhaps pushing it just a bit. Regardless, it is engaging throughout as a shining talent showcase. Magid, who also directed, is both the driest comedian of the four and the most accomplished at keeping objects in the air. The climax of the first act finds him facing the challenge of juggling items brought to the stage by the audience — if he can keep three going for 10 seconds, you owe him a standing ovation; otherwise, he gets a cream pie in the face. Magid’s task wasn’t an easy one, not least because his choices included literal trash: half-eaten food, empty drink containers, and so on. But if some in the house thought the stage was a dump, Magid proved it wasn’t when he prevented any excess pie from cluttering it up — and earned his on-the-feet response from the onlookers.

Magid and the other Flying Karamazov Brothers — who, for the record, don’t fly, aren’t related, and aren’t Russian (and why are they wearing kilts?) — must not be mistaken for garbage men. They may make dopey jokes and feign amateurism, but it’s all for effect. These are highly trained artists who know just as well how to keep a show moving as they do those musical instruments, a series of bouncing balls in an eye-popping rhythmic display at the start of Act II, or increasingly silly jokes (one refers to an egg as a “build-your-own-chicken kit”). If they can send those bowling pins soaring 10 or 20 feet across the stage with absolute precision, who knows what else they could do with them? Doubt and disrespect them at your peril, but don’t miss them, even if the Fringe Festival is more your speed. 4Play is just as unexpected and invigorating as anything you’re likely to find there.


The Flying Karamazov Brothers: 4Play
Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane - off of 6th Avenue between Bleecker and West 3rd Street.
Running Time: 100 minutes, with intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Ticketmaster