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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Speaking in Tongues and Bat Boy: The Musical

Also see Tim's reviews of Let Me Down Easy, The Pride of Parnell Street and
Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps

Speaking in Tongues
Susan Riley Stevens and
William Zielinski

Photo: Mark Garvin
According to Leo Tolstoy, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Andrew Bovell's play Speaking in Tongues seems determined to prove virtually the opposite—that every unhappy couple is unhappy in the same way. Bovell's play is impressive and at times ingenious, and the dynamic production at the Walnut Street Theatre's Independence Studio on 3 shows off the play's strengths well. Unfortunately, the play makes several odd and unsatisfying turns in its second act which come close to ruining its strong first impression. Act one of Speaking in Tongues skillfully emphasizes characterization over plot, but act two swings too hard in the opposite direction.

As the play opens, we witness two seductions occurring in two hotel rooms. Not only are the trysts happening simultaneously, but the same words are frequently being said simultaneously in each room. "I haven't done this sort of thing before," says each of the men. "You see, I'm married," says each of the women. "I know. So am I," says each of the men. "I wanted to know if I was still attractive," says each of the women. And on it goes, in a perceptive and precisely timed scene that repeats clichés in order to puncture them. These people think they're unique, that no one really understands what they're going through—but the words they use reveal that they're just like every other cheater in the world.

What these people don't know yet is that their spouses are cheating on them, too: Pete's wife Jane is with Leon, and Leon's wife Sonja is with Pete. Only one of these couples ends up going through with their adultery, though, and when the evening is over, everybody returns to their respective spouses, and the roundelay begins again. Pretty soon there are confessions and recriminations; the two men just happen to meet, and then the same thing happens to the women. It's a familiar story, but Bovell's construction makes it special, showing how these bright, privileged people try to deal with issues such as fidelity and forgiveness. And John Peakes' incisive direction makes it special too, as do four empathetic, compelling actors: Ian Merrill Peakes and Karen Peakes (the director's son and daughter-in-law) play one of the married couples, while the other couple is played by Susan Riley Stevens and William Zielinski.

As act one comes to a close, we see the couples' attempts to reconcile, and their conversations take unexpected turns. Leon tells his wife a story that seems rambling at first, about how he ran into a man who has an odd connection to a pair of brown wingtips; meanwhile, Jane tells her husband about a neighbor she suspects may be a murderer. Where are things headed for these two couples in act two? Nowhere, alas; in act two, the same four actors play different characters—the characters referred to in Leon and Jane's stories. The multiple characters all relate to each other in an intricate web of misunderstandings and missed opportunities, and while Bovell continues to explore the same themes, the play turns into a thriller. And not a satisfying thriller, either—the twists of this 1996 play involve pay phones, answering machines, missed calls, and other plot devices that seem dated in the age of cell phones and instant messaging. As a result, the audience can see where all of this is going even before the complex, fiercely intelligent characters do. The performances remain fine in the second act; Stevens and Karen Peakes are especially good, burrowing deeply into characters who don't care how unlikable they are.

Everyone involved in the Walnut's production of Speaking in Tongues does an outstanding job. And the play is never uninteresting. It's too bad it devolves from a keen examination of truth, lies, and commitment into an empty intellectual exercise.

Speaking in Tongues runs through April 17, 2011, at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $30, and are available by calling the box office at 215-574-3550, online at www.walnutstreettheatre.org or www.ticketmaster.com, or by visiting the box office.

Bat Boy
Jessica O'Brien and Michael Libonati
Photo: Paola Nogueras
Villanova Theatre is presenting a fun and breezy production of a musical whose subject might not sound like much fun. It's Bat Boy: The Musical, the quirky and irreverent 2001 Off-Broadway hit that works wonderfully because it embraces its bizarre subject with gusto.

Inspired by the fake news stories in the late, unlamented supermarket tabloid "Weekly World News," Bat Boy tells the story of an odd, feral creature, human in form but with bat-like ears and fangs, found in a West Virginia cave. A local family, the Parkers, takes in the Bat Boy, names him Edgar, and lets him live in a cage in their living room. Eventually Edgar not only gets tamed but even becomes a model citizen, winning over some of the town's skeptical citizenry. But can Edgar ever truly assimilate in a world where he doesn't belong? And incidentally, how does Edgar survive—and does it have anything to do with why all the local cows are dying?

The book by Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming is crafty and witty, never taking its situation seriously for a moment. Laurence O'Keefe's music encompasses country, rock, tango, and Andrew Lloyd Webber parodies, and his lyrics are consistently unpredictable, which is what makes them so delightful. Perhaps the best example of this is "Show You a Thing or Two," a vaudeville-style shuffle which builds in energy to become a real dazzler. At the beginning of the song, Edgar communicates only in grunts, but within five minutes (and thanks to Mrs. Parker's instruction) he's tap dancing, singing in a cultured Oxford accent, and declaring "Now say howdy/To a summa cum laude!"

Michael Kane Libonati is excellent as the title character, showing off a wide vocal range—everything from a pristine falsetto to a hard-edged rock belt—and getting the comedy right too. Jessica O'Brien shows off a gorgeous voice and great charisma as Meredith, the neurotic mother who takes Edgar into her home. Tim Rinehart is suitably sinister as Meredith's husband, and Sarah Moya is sweet and funny as their daughter; her voice blends well with Libonati's on their duet, "Inside Your Heart." There are also some nice contributions from the ensemble, especially from Michael Jensen, who displays vocal power and good comic timing in several small roles, including a turn as a revival tent preacher.

Valerie Joyce's direction is generally fine, but the pacing is slack during scenes that focus on the large ensemble; the timing in these scenes isn't as tight as in the scenes involving the Parker family. And the lighting is disappointing; sure, some scenes are set in a shadowy cave, but the scenes in the Parkers' living room are nearly as dim. The stars' faces never pop out at the audience the way they should.

Bat Boy isn't a perfect show: while it parodies horror movies, its ridiculous ending wallows in that same style of horror too much for its own good. And one twisted turn of the plot seemed to disturb the opening night audience—an indication that the authors, while trying hard to be outrageous, didn't know where to stop.

But if you like your comedy as dark as the Bat Boy's cave, you'll enjoy Bat Boy. It's got a warped sense of humor and some memorable, melodic songs, and Villanova's production does it all quite well.

Bat Boy: The Musical runs through April 17, 2011, at Villanova Theatre, located in Vasey Hall on the Villanova University campus in Villanova, Pa. Tickets prices from from $21 to $25, with discounts available for seniors, students and groups, and are available by calling the box office at 610-519-7474, online at www.theatre.villanova.edu, or by visiting the box office.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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