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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

2012 Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe Roundup #1:
Jeff Coon and Ben Dibble Must Die
27
Devotedly, Sincerely Yours: The Story of the USO

If you've seen a play in Philadelphia in the past fifteen years, it's likely you've seen Jeffrey Coon and/or Ben Dibble. Perhaps you saw them in the title roles of the children's musical A Year with Frog and Toad. Perhaps you saw them playing pot smokers in Tulipomania—or as I like to call it, A Year with Frog and Toke. Perhaps you saw Coon as John Wilkes Booth and Dibble as Lee Harvey Oswald in Sondheim's Assassins—or as I like to call it, An Assassination with Frog and Toad. Or perhaps you saw Coon as Enjolras and Dibble as an ensemble member in Les MisÚrables—or as I like to call it ... um ...Les Miz.

The point is, these guys are working almost all the time, and while audiences and directors clearly appreciate their talents, some actors have grown to resent their constant presence and the way the insular Philadelphia theater community always seems to find parts for familiar faces, leaving many actors out in the cold. That resentment and jealousy has now inspired Jeff Coon and Ben Dibble Must Die, about two struggling actors (Michael Doherty and Greg Nix) who come up with a scheme to kill these two quasi-stars so that they can get the roles they feel they deserve themselves.

It's all tongue in cheek, and Coon and Dibble themselves are in on the joke; Dibble's wife Amy Dugas Brown is the director. Doherty and Nix clearly know the frustrations of an actor's life; the show opens with a hilarious sequence showing them going on audition after audition, always with the same material ("My name is Michael, and I'll be singing 'On the Street Where You Live' from My Fair Lady"), always facing the same competition, always getting the same disappointing results.

But Jeff Coon and Ben Dibble Must Die fizzles quickly after that great opening. At about 80 minutes, the show needs to be cut in half; the jokes get repetitive, and the plot goes nowhere. There's a lot of material about a creepy (but unfunny) hit man played by Alex Bechtel. And there are self-indulgent parodies of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Kill Bill that go on way too long. The three original songs are nothing special; in the second song, the actor/authors even admit that they have run out of rhymes for "Dibble." (The brief excerpts of songs from a fictitious Coon and Dibble vehicle, Rain Man: The Musical!, sound more interesting.)

Still, it's sharp, clever, and full of energy. Even if you don't get all the references (and the jokes about the Walnut Street Theatre's stage manager went over my head), you'll appreciate the effort and insight that fuel the show. And Doherty and Nix are very winning performers. Not as winning as Coon and Dibble, of course, but they'll do in a pinch.

Jeff Coon and Ben Dibble Must Die played its final performance on September 10, 2012.


A Separate Peace
The Ensemble of 27
New Paradise Laboratory's 27 is a show about the afterlife in which most of the characters are rock icons who died at the age of 27—Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin and Amy Winehouse. Yet while watching it, I was reminded of a song that David Byrne, a rock icon who is now 60 years old, released when he was 27: "Heaven is a place / A place where nothing ever happens." Because in 27, well, nothing ever happens. And for the audience that spends 75 minutes watching it, it may feel more like hell.

27 takes place in a room with the four aforementioned stars; thanks to wigs, all four actors look convincingly like the people they portray, except for their Morrison, who looks more like the tall guy from Brooks and Dunn. A talented guitarist (Alec MacLaughlin) plays rock and roll riffs while fog pours into the room. The room is drab except for a "star hole" in the corner—a hole in the wall surrounded by electric lights in the shape of a star. The four singers are standing still, slumping, barely moving for the first ten minutes. Eventually they move around (usually in slow motion) and make a few odd pronouncements. Cobain jumps atop a table while Winehouse peers off the edge of the stage platform, always on the verge of jumping. Then they do it again. It's all symbolic of something, probably.

After forty minutes of meandering, a story finally begins. A frightened young woman (Emilie Krause) who has just died enters the room, and Cobain tells her "We're sort of here in this basic non-here here. We're here to help you pass through." (Wait, is this heaven or purgatory?) Finally the woman finds the courage to tell the story of her life while Morrison nods off behind her. The singers lead her to the Heaviside Layer—oops, I mean the star hole—so she can begin her afterlife for real.

Conceived and directed by Whit MacLaughlin, 27 has nothing to say about rock stardom, charisma, the nature of being 27 years old, the afterlife, or anything else for that matter. It's tedious and unrewarding.

27 runs through September 16, 2012 at Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Place.


The key word in the title of Devotedly, Sincerely Yours: The Story of the USO is "sincerely." It's a salute to the fighting men of World War II, as well as to the USO, which worked so hard to entertain the troops under trying conditions. It's a patriotic, sweetly nostalgic show that is full of smiles but takes its subject seriously. And the emotions it displays are, like the 48-star flag that hangs behind the actors, authentic.

Devotedly, Sincerely Yours is a showcase for Samantha Joy Pearlman, who wrote the show and stars as a singer performing in a transcription radio show being recorded for the troops. She's a charmer, and she gets to show off a lovely soprano on vintage hits like "On the Sunny Side of the Street" and "I'll Be Seeing You." Her script alternates well-seasoned jokes with well-researched scholarship; at one point Pearlman reads from a real booklet called "Do's and Don'ts of USO Behavior Overseas." She gets able support from Griffin Stanton-Ameisen as an emcee and from a six-piece band led by Jamison Foreman. Kate Galvin's nimble direction and Jenn Rose's jitterbug-heavy choreography make the show seem more elaborate than it really is; you feel like you're seeing something sizeable despite the minimal staging.

Devotedly, Sincerely Yours is a cute show, but it's basically a concert crossed with a history lesson; there's little at stake here theatrically. So when the show suddenly decides to raise the dramatic stakes in its last 10 minutes by mawkishly acknowledging the horrors of war, it's an awkward move that feels out of step with the tone set in the previous hour. Nevertheless, Pearlman and her crew deserve credit for recreating a bygone era in such a lively way.

Devotedly, Sincerely Yours: The Story of the USO played its final performance on September 9, 2012.


The 2012 Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe runs through September 22 at venues throughout the city. For tickets and information, visit www.livearts-fringe.org.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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