I Don <3 U Ne Mor
The New York International Fringe Festival
Aren’t one-man musicals — and I mean real musicals, not just concerts — a drag? Isn’t what makes a musical unique the way its characters bond through melody and harmony, and how conflicts resolve themselves in song and dance when all your senses tell you they shouldn’t? Ultimately, aren’t these the most pointless of all the form’s dead-ends? Yes, yes, and yes. But when you discover a good one — and a good (or better) performer — just try to hang on to your prejudices. Doing so is well-nigh impossible at Picture Incomplete, the jolting solo variety show in the New York International Fringe Festival that’s putting Trent Armand Kendall to better use than his book shows in New York have.
These include, in case you’ve forgotten, Bat Boy (Off-Broadway) and the 2002 revival of Into the Woods. But he’s magnetically memorable as he plows through Michael Polese’s music and lyrics and his own book and lyrics: He captures, in color-suffused detail and supple voice, the feel and the sound of structured New York loneliness. The story, to the extent there is one, is that this man (referred to in the program only as The Storyteller) is celebrating his birthday in front of his Manhattan apartment building with the trunk that contains the crumpled remnants of his life, and his going through it — and his even more cluttered mind — reminds him that life and faith are far more than abstract concepts.
Trite? Well, okay, on some level. But as The Storyteller explores the nooks and crannies of his brain and unearths an unending stream of colorful personalities, the depth of his world come into crystal-clear focus, which provides a weight and satisfying tang that keep you engaged even when the story dissolves into abject nothingness. (This process begins about two scenes from the end.) The songs, which are energetically rendered by musical director Adam Klipple and his two bandmates, paint vivid portraits of The Storyteller and his friends who are all searching for meaning of life the way he is. “I Looked It Up,” about a dictionary’s impact on the everyday, is an early rouser, while “A Father’s Lament” is a soulful plaint from a man who’ll never know the children he fathered and “Walk-In Closet” goes all in on treating some curiously unsuccessful coming-out attempts.
Then there’s the obligatory gospel finale, which drives home the message that you’re never as broken — or as fixed — as you think you are. This element is the show’s least original, and doesn’t do much to pull this already conventional outing away from the abyss of predictability. But with the steel-throated Kendall, who’s at once a huggable lug of a stage presence and a startlingly versatile character actor (his nosey matrons are eerie in their acuity), you never feel you’re hearing or seeing anything quite as familiar as you actually are. Kendall, Polese, and director Greg Ganakas create an all-too-real fantasy version of New York, with people you almost-but-don’t-quite recognize — in other words, they transport you, which is more than many bigger musicals can manage. Kendall proves that heart is all you really need, and he’s got more than enough to sculpt the whole Upper West Side.
VENUE #6: The Club @ LA MAMA
I Don <3 U Ne Mor
There’s got to be a biting, witty play that can be extracted from the concepts of technophilia and technophobia, but Darren Taylor, Frank Grullon, and Cathy Thomas’s musical I Don <3 U Ne Mor isn’t it — at least often enough. Librettist-lyricist Taylor settles for a dusty story about a preternaturally nerdy guy named Ron who somehow works as a paper archivist at a major telecom company. But when the company is bought by a Microsoft-like conglomerate, he’s afraid he’ll be out of a job unless he changes from Luddite to tech playboy—and quick. He does, and of course it’s not long before the new mega-company and, in fact, the whole world are in danger.
Never mind how this happens — it’s really not important. Nor, sadly, is much else: The story is full of lame jokes and cheap metatheatrics (the opening number is interrupted several times by chorus members’ cell phones sounding), and Caddell plays Ron with a manner so explosively adenoidal, you want to throw a Kindle at him before the end of his second scene. Ron’s coworker, Sam, is a bit less a stereotypical geek, but still more sniveling than serious (and, as played by Elise Link, is nearly impossible to hear); and Cameron Leighton Kirkpatrick’s treatment of Ron’s ultra-cool friend Nic is distractingly over the top. Only Joshua Doss finds the proper blend of style, smarm, and honesty to sell his character of Jamie, the mid-management type with the expected devastating secret.
Like most else in I Don <3 U Ne Mor, the bouncy elevator-pop songs are instantly forgettable and don’t contribute much tangible theatricality. (“The Internet Makes Stalking Ok,” for example, is exactly as much fun as it sounds.) But credit is definitely due director John Hurley, who makes the last 20 or so minutes of the show a legitimate riot. Don’t bother asking why the stage is crawling with zombies, or why Kirkpatrick spends about ten minutes looking like he’s about ready to make out with everything from a mechanical watch to an onstage speaker — it makes hilarious sense in the moment, but isn’t really explainable afterward. Perhaps this show should make more emphatic arguments both for and against a more connected life — it’s about nothing else, so it shouldn’t say so little quite so loudly — but as summer junk-food theatre, its final scene offers enough solid giggles to be worth the grimacing its title automatically induces with every glimpse of your program cover.
VENUE #12: Lucille Lortel Theatre
Tickets online at FringeNYC Tickets