Talkin' Broadway HomePast ColumnsAbout





Off Broadway


Yeast Nation (the triumph of life)
and
The Unhappiness Plays
part of the
New York International Fringe Festival

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Yeast Nation (the triumph of life)

There’s been no bigger New York International Fringe Festival success than Urinetown, so one theoretically cannot blame Greg Kotis and Mark Hollman for attempting to repeat it by entering a new show in the Festival this year. One can, however, blame them for devising almost no new ideas for their despairingly similar and despair-inducing follow-up, Yeast Nation (the triumph of life). Like Urinetown, it’s set in an overpopulated, overregulated dystopian society; features a narrator and a young companion who comment incessantly on the story’s supposed relevance to the audience and musical theatre as a narrative form; and is utterly bereft of genuine feeling, a relatable plot, thoughtfully constructed characters, or detailed acting.

The only difference is that the previous show was ostensibly populated with humans, while this one is about unicellular organisms living on Earth just over three billion years ago. Concerned that their sea home is running out of nutritious salt, the elder yeast (the first-ever living creature) has instituted food rationing, prohibited asexual reproduction, and banned visiting “the surface.” Kotis and Hollman technically use this as a jumping-off point for exploring humans’ own sustainability issues and willingness to forgo liberty for security, but by offering no reason to take their efforts seriously, the show feels like just another attempt to see how much (or rather, how little) they can get away with. Seeing the usually hilarious Tony winner Harriet Harris mumble and bumble about the stage as an Officer Lockstock–Tieresias hybrid, screaming about the veracity of her story while her eyes twitch incessantly, imparts unsurprisingly little authority (or comedy).

Kotis has directed, proving those axioms about writers being the worst interpreters of their work. If indeed there is a tight, funny show to be found in Yeast Nation (I’m skeptical, but the Fringe Festival inspires me to grant the benefit of the doubt), it will not be found under the control of someone who thinks it can’t be told in a less than two hours and 25 minutes, or who views Daffy Duck as the ideal model for every actor’s performance. (Harris is joined by 14 other undeniably gifted performers, including George McDaniel, Erik Altemus, Manu Narayan, and Emily Tarpey, all of whom sing superbly but none of whom succeed in finding even second dimensions to the critters they play.) Wendy Seyb’s choreography is serviceable but nondistinct — but how can dance convey emotions the writers have not deigned to bestow?

The book (by Kotis) is loaded not with jokes but with half-hearted attempts to mine humor from self-referentialism and haphazard modern references — there is exactly one laugh in the show, buried deep in the second act. The score tries to marry post-modernism with pop and Hellenic screeching but fails in every case but the barely passable finale; like the book, Hollman’s music and lyrics and Kotis’s lyrics simply cannot overcome the utter pointlessness of their existence. To give one example of a misstep out of potentially hundreds, every character, without exception, is named Jan. To be clear, that’s pronounced with the “J” sounding like a “Y” and an open-mid-back-rounded “a”—like “yawn,” something you’ll be doing continuously throughout the fetidly familiar Yeast Nation.

Yeast Nation (the triumph of life)
Tickets, Venue, and Current Performance Schedule: www.fringenyc.org


The Unhappiness Plays

Urinetown, Yeast Nation (see above), and Pig Farm have proven Greg Kotis’s willingness to extend half a joke into an evening-length entertainment. The Phoenix-based Space55’s production of The Unhappiness Plays proves that Kotis is also capable of extending half a joke into a one-scene sketch, and then repeating that eight more times as an evening-length entertainment. The results are not appreciably less funny than Kotis’s usual, but they’re certainly not any better, at least under Bob Fisher’s direction here.

The idea of a comic compilation of existential conundrums is not a poor one — David Ives made it work, after a fashion, with his All in the Timing — but finding the proper tone between the writing and performing is crucial. Perhaps, if stories about a man’s crusade against deli owners indifferent to leaving the onions off his sandwich, a blind prophet’s foiled attempts at identity theft, a man’s lifelong imprisonment for wearing Sandals in Shoe Town, a doctor to the dead learning he’s died, farting in an elevator, and several other scenarios, are delivered as serious, crushing issues, their natural absurdity will allow them to be funny. But except for the tall, gangly Ryan Gaumont, whose skillful use of a hang-dog face and perpetually wide-open eyes suggest he’s in the proper ballpark, Fisher and his cast so grimace, shout, and lurch through Kotis’s nine playlets that you’re unable to assess any of them unburdened by “style.”

For better or worse, that’s something Kotis has, though whether his mock-lofty playwriting voice, which flirts with poetry before punching it in the face, is innovative or merely lazy remains open for debate. If you want to try to decide for yourself, The Unhappiness Plays gives you the broadest one-stop sample set to date. If only so much of the acting weren’t so broad itself.

The Unhappiness Plays
Tickets, Venue, and Current Performance Schedule: www.fringenyc.org