Off Broadway Reviews
Eli and Cheryl Jump
The New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC)
It's incredibly rare that a play has as its chief virtue its political even-handedness. Yet that's the case with Live Broadcast, John William Schiffbauer's entry at the New York International Fringe Festival that pits a conservative Hollywood action star against a Vermont congressional Democrat on a nationally televised public affairs show to see which, if either, has legitimate claim to debating superiority.
Flying in the face of all accepted theatrical wisdom, both the actor, Tom Powers (Schiffbauer himself), and the politician, Madeline Bruce (Andrea Day), are exceedingly attractive, well-spoken, and passionate about all the usual hot-button issues from gun control to abortion. Both have their rhetorical flaws, true: Tom sometimes has to retreat from unintended dead ends of thought, and Madeline has a habit of carrying straw men with her into battle. Both they're closely matched combatants of the type that most playwrights seem terrified (or unequipped) to present onstage.
It's too bad, then, that their confrontation consumes only part of Live Broadcast, and that nothing else matches it in terms of drama, structure, or simple quality. Schiffbauer's real concern is the impact of divergent forms of media on United States discourse. He represents this on one hand by Tom's agent, Jane Forge (Amanda Brooke Lerner), who doesn't want him to express any opinions lest he alienate half of potential ticket buyers, and on the other by the show's host, Jack Tatum (Kyle Knauf), who's not only willing to sacrifice anyone and anything to be trend-setting and important, but is also not-so-secretly sleeping with Madeline.
There are definitely some interesting concepts here, foremost among them that the ball-breakingly realistic Jane is so entrenched in the studios' liberal power structure that she considers any right-leaning views antithetical to good business. But Schiffbauer has sufficiently developed very few of his ideas. The most climactic (off-air) exchanges are preachy and obvious, many of the relationships between characters are sketchily defined, and the dialogue is so littered with unfinished and unstarted sentences and evasive or unvoiced descriptors that everyone requires a minimum of 10 minutes to say nothing. The first act, especially, takes over an hour to plow through material more experienced dramatists could traverse in 15 minutes, tops.
Granted, the direction (by Melissa Attebery) is loping and lackadaisical, and with the exception of Schiffbauer, who (predictably) has no trouble negotiating his words' rockiness to make Tom suave and intellectually convincing, the actors are operating out of their depth. The show's general feel and sound suggest that Schiffbauer longs to be the next David Mamet, or offer up this play as an alternative to Douglas Carter Beane's sharper (and much funnier) The Little Dog Laughed, but Live Broadcast is never confident, explosive, or original enough to be either. It is, however, an uncommonly fair-minded look at how America's competing ideologies duel into the too-public eye - a unique and admirable place to be, even if it's only one of the places Schiffbauer seems interested in going.
Eli and Cheryl Jump
If you knew you couldn't possibly be killed, except by old age, would it make your life richer or instead flood it with insanity and frustration? That's the question with which Daniel McCoy starts his surprisingly provocative play, Eli and Cheryl Jump, but it's not where he stops.
The conceit is that Eli (Charles Linshaw) can only cheat death at the expense of someone he loves, which has given the young man a towering collection of opportunities and a constant burden of regret - as well as the ironclad belief that the best thing he can do for those he cares about is to care about no one at all. Add in the sad wrinkle that Eli gained this ability at the behest of his aggrieved mother following his father's death, and you have a bewitching basis for an unusual if touching romance. The other player there is, of course, Cheryl (an ethereally sophisticated Cassandra Vincent), whom Eli meets by chance on a train and who insinuates into his life in spite of his attempts to escape it. She becomes his anchor to normalcy, the method by which he may finally rid himself of what his mother aptly described as both his "birthright" and his "curse."
Linshaw gives an attractively conflicted, if occasionally overexuberant, performance as Eli. But Vincent is stunning, not just as the enigmatic Cheryl, but also Eli's doting mother, first serious girlfriend, and unplaceably Eastern-European landlady. She navigates through a quartet of perfectly pitched accents and physical characterizations, yet always crisply plotting them on the chart of Eli's life. She finds a remarkable power and depth in all the women, and helps you intimately understand both Eli's desire to live forever with them and his fear that the closer he gets to them, the closer he comes to bringing about their downfall.
McCoy's sweeping speeches and anguished arias of emotion, as well as sensitive direction from Nicole A. Watson, round out the production with winsome flair. Unfortunately, just 45 minutes, the play is too short to elaborate sufficiently on all of Eli's relationships, and the one that suffers most is, bizarrely, Cheryl, whose connection with Eli has barely been established before it meets its final test. If McCoy continues to develop Eli and Cheyl Jump, which he unquestionably should, he needs to ensure that the women's stories are as complete and compelling as Eli's. There's so much of real value in this lovely and soaring play that it's a shame the title characters' necessary leap of faith is diminished by forcing audiences to perform unnecessary leaps of logic.
Eli and Cheryl Jump