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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Pookie Goes Grenading and
Freud's Last Session

Also see Tim's reviews of Pretty Fire and What a Glorious Feeling


Mary Tuomanen and Brian McCann
Photo by Johanna Austin/AustinArt.org
In the opening moments of Pookie Goes Grenading, the title character reads from the movie script she's written with herself in the leading role: "Close-up on Pookie. She is fourteen. She is awesome."

You've got that right, Pookie. J.C. Lee's highly enjoyable new comedy focuses on a girl for whom art, rebellion, self-expression and self-promotion are inextricably linked. While the play isn't perfect, Pookie herself makes an indelible impression, and so does Mary Tuomanen in the title role.

Pookie's goal in life is to make sure the whole world knows who she is, and if that means some people inadvertently get hurt—she didn't mean to set her high school auditorium on fire, really—well, so be it. She's determined to succeed by any means necessary, with the help of her best friend and former speech team partner Dynamo Delgado (Eric Scotolati). Dynamo doesn't comprehend everything Pookie is talking about, but she inspires him nonetheless. "I think you're a visionary," says Dynamo, "like Joan of Arc, or Katie Couric." They enlist Benny (Jamison Foreman), a gay jock who is so cool that he inspires a reluctant Dynamo to try being gay ("I'm gonna get used to it, I promise"). Together they embark on a plot that involves kidnapping Larry (Brian McCann) their hapless, uptight guidance counselor and performing a play within a play that depicts a sailor licking frosting off a talking doughnut.

"I still don't get all these pastry metaphors," complains Larry near the end of the show. I don't either—Pookie can't coherently explain why she uses the symbolism she does. But that's OK; if it looks artistic, and it feels liberating, it's good enough for Pookie. That's why she's playing an action hero one moment and a rock star the next. She's trying to live out all her childhood fantasies at once, and just hopes that the rest of the world will someday catch up.

Like Pookie herself, Pookie Goes Grenading can get caught up in its own cuteness at times. Lee is always trying hard to be outrageous, and his relentless stream of pop culture references—from comic books to avant garde theatre to Broadway's Wicked to the 1990s TV series "My So-Called Life"—can be overwhelming. Some of the plot developments get a bit ridiculous, and Pookie's cruel treatment of Larry costs her some of the audience's sympathy. And one of the supporting characters, the techie Greta (Brandi Burgess), arrives virtually out of nowhere and never seems fully integrated with the other characters.

But it helps that the show is very funny and quotable. Director Kevin Glaccum keeps things light and never lets the tone get too extreme. The supporting cast is totally committed to the material, with McCann scoring as the uneasy authority figure who can't relate to the kids he has to supervise ("Ever since 'The Breakfast Club,' everyone wants to be a rebel"). And Tuomanen is just about perfect as the overdramatic, hyperactive Pookie, moving too fast for anyone to question her motives or her methods. The colorful sets and costumes (by Roman Tatarowitz and Maggie Baker, respectively) add to the hyper-realistic, comic book feel of the show. Everything about Pookie Goes Grenading feels larger than life.

"I just want life to conform to the rules of dramatic structure," Pookie tells Dynamo. "Is that too much to ask?" Not at all, Pookie, not at all.

Pookie Goes Grenading runs through November 18, 2012, and is presented by Azuka Theatre at the Off-Broad Street Theater at First Baptist Church, 1636 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. Tickets cost $18-$27 and are available by calling the box office at (215) 563-1100, or online at www.AzukaTheatre.org.



David Howey and Todd Scofield
Photo by Mark Garvin
Freud's Last Session is set in 1939 and imagines a meeting between two intellectual heavyweights: Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, and C.S. Lewis, the novelist and Christian essayist. Freud, who is in severe pain from oral cancer, has invited Lewis to his home for a reason: "I want to learn why a man of your intellect, one who shared my convictions, could suddenly abandon truth and embrace an insidious lie"—namely, religion. Freud vigorously argues against religion, while Lewis just as ardently argues his own view: "That there is a God. That a man doesn't have to be an imbecile to believe in Him. And we feeble-minded who do are not, as you claim, suffering from a pathetic 'obsessional neurosis.'"

Mark St. Germain's play was a big success in New York, where it closed Off-Broadway this past summer after a two-year run. It's easy to see why it has struck a chord with audiences: it's an intelligent work that respects its subjects and its audience, and makes complex religious and philosophical arguments approachable. It gets deep at times, but it's easy to follow. And it mostly sticks to the meat of the argument: there are moments of humor and biographical asides about the two men, but St. Germain is mostly interested in the logical process that the two men go through to reach what they believe to be the truth. (Each man went through a conversion of sorts, rejecting dogma for years before coming to his own conclusions.)

The Arden's production is performed on David P. Gordon's marvelous set, which depicts Freud's study as a warren of books, busts, knickknacks, and antiquities from Egypt, Asia and India—objects he spent decades collecting.

But while it's never less than interesting, Freud's Last Session never rises to the level of great drama. David Howey's Freud is wily and cantankerous, but Todd Scofield's calm and measured Lewis never lets Freud get under his skin. This makes for respectable characters but stagnant drama. Director Ian Merrill Peakes allows each man to assert himself in his own way, but never lets either man dominate. And while that can be an appealing approach, it's not a completely satisfying one.

Freud's Last Session runs through December 23, 2012, at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $36 to $48 (with group discounts available) and are available by calling the box office at (215) 922-1122, or online at www.ArdenTheatre.org.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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