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St. Louis by Sarah Boslaugh

Cockeyed
HotCity Theatre

Cockeyed
Adam Flores and Jennifer Nitzband
The studio theatre of the Kranzberg Arts Center was rocking with laughter on Friday night, thanks to the world premiere of Cockeyed, a new play by William Missouri Downs that won last season's HotCity Theatre GreenHouse New Play Festival. Cockeyed was hilarious in the staged reading during the Festival, but it's even better in HotCity's full production, and is a polished and engaging work which should enjoy many more productions in the future.

Cockeyed draws heavily on the age-old conventions of farce: improbable situations, exaggerated characters, amazing coincidences, absurd misunderstandings, people hiding in closets and barely missing each other as they run in and out of doors—you get the idea. The characters work in an office that seems to belong to a world at least several decades past; corporations are still oppressive (and still a man's world) but not so much in the specific ways presented here. Cockeyed has more in common with Billy Wilder's The Apartment (there's even an adding machine on the desk) and with Woody Allen's films from the 1970s (remember the scene where he imagined the ideal partner: a woman who was in every way his counterpart, from her fanatic interest in baseball to her passion for traditional jazz, but who also fulfilled his exact requirements for feminine beauty?) than with modern office life.

But that's not really a problem, because Cockeyed is not a naturalistic play. From time to time you may be tempted to interpret it as such, but the playwright quickly jerks you back to the land of farce by having one of the characters directly address the audience or launch into a philosophical discourse which would be pretentious if overheard in the freshman dorm, and is completely absurd in the context of adults who have to think about things like health insurance coverage.

The story centers on sad-sack Phil (Adam Flores), who's madly in love with the beautiful Sophia (Jennifer Nitzband). Or at least he's madly obsessed with her, since they've never met and he really knows nothing about her: she exists for him only as the object of his fantasies. And when he says she looks right through him, that's not just a figure of speech. In a more realistic play Phil could be a scary stalker, peering at Sophia through binoculars while she goes about her work. Yes, he really does that. But beneath the farcical exterior of Cockeyed beats the heart of a romantic comedy, and everything Phil does is meant to be cute rather than creepy. It's a credit to Adam Flores that he pulls this off: his Phil is as disarmingly cuddly and non-threatening as a puppy.

The worm in the rose, so to speak, is the evil boss Marley (Tyler Vickers), who also lusts after Sophia but has the advantages of money and position. Vickers captures just the right note, playing Marley as a broad caricature of the alpha male who commands Sophia to "sit!" and "stay!" as if she were a dog. He also has a disconcerting habit of shifting abruptly between conversations with people who are physically present and with an unheard voice on the telephone headset which seems to be grafted to his skull. It's a clever device which offers ample opportunities for farcical misunderstanding whenever the story begins to sage.

Sophia is primarily a device to allow the play to happen: we don't learn much about her beyond the fact that she has a glass eye (played up for all its comical possibilities) and an annoying mother who lives upstairs and calls every three minutes (telephones are even better than doorbells when it comes to ramping up the action). But Jennifer Nitzband brings out the humanity in Sophia. If the other characters see her only as a means to their ends, she fights back for the right to choose her own life.

The fourth character is Norman (Paul Pagano), the voice of reason among all these self-involved people. He's an old buddy of Phil's who went out on a limb to hire a philosophy major (a running joke) but whose loyalty is strained due to Phil's obstinacy and lack of concern about the real-world consequences of his actions. Romantic daydreaming and showing off your philosophical knowledge may stroke the ego, but Norman is a married man with responsibilities, and Pagano captures Norman's sense of exasperation at his self-involved buddy who just doesn't seem to get it.

There's a lot of philosophy quoted in Cockeyed, and a lot of inside jokes and gentle pokes aimed at the PBS set—a good strategy since the people most likely to get the references are also the people most likely to buy theatre tickets. But it's never oppressive and you have to admire the playwright's cleverness: how many farces re-enact Plato's allegory of the cave to bring their plots to resolution? If the resolution itself is overly convenient (and skirts uncomfortably close to the conventions a television dramedy—does everything have to end with lessons learned?), I'm willing to cut the author some slack since the writing is so good up to that point.

The technical elements are excellent as always. Alex Gaines' set includes three distinct locations within the narrow confines of the Kranzberg studio theatre, and Jeff Griswold's sound design adds an element of characterization (both Sophia and Phil enjoy dancing badly to 1980s disco), as do Felicia Davenport's costumes. Davenport also came up with a real howler of a jacket which adds to the comic momentum as Cockeyed hurtles toward its conclusion.

The HotCity production of Cockeyed will continue at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 N. Grand Blvd. at Olive in St. Louis City, through May 30th. Ticket information is available from the box office at 314-289-4060 or on the web from www.hotcitytheatre.org/cart/index.php. Next up at HotCity will be the 4th Annual GreenHouse New Play Festival, June 26-28 at the Centene Center for Arts and Education, 3547 Olive St. in St. Louis City.

Cast
Phil: Adam Flores
Sophia: Jennifer Nitzband
Norman: Paul Pagano*
Marley: Tyler Vickers

Crew
Author: William Missouri Downs
Director: Marty Stanberry
Scenic Designer: Alex Gaines
Lighting Designer: Michael Sullivan
Costume Designer: Felicia Davenport
Sound Designer: Jeff Griswold
Technical Director: Kyle Ponder
Properties Designer: Tom Myrda
Stage Manager: Maureen O'Brien*
Assistant Technical Director: Jerry Russo
Assistant Stage Manager: Kate Koch
Master Electrician: Bess Moynihan
Running Crew: Emily Gavin-Slaght
Production Assistant: Rebecca Gausnell *Member of Actors Equity, the association of professional actors and stage managers in the U.S.A.


Photo: John Armstrong


-- Sarah Boslaugh

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