5 stars: Nancy Opel, 3 stars: My Deah
If you want an object lesson in the importance of casting, go see My Deah at the Abingdon Theatre starring Nancy Opel. Don't delay, otherwise you might not see Mark Simpson's set design; Ms. Opel might have chewed it all up before you get there. This is one of those performances in which scenery chewing is not only allowed, it's encouraged. For all we know, director Mark Waldrop may have salted the set. In a flamboyant, cross-dressing comedy by John Epperson (of Lypsinka fame) in which Medea has been transposed to the Deep South and decorated with references to Tennessee Williams, there is no such thing as a performance that's too big.
We suspect the piece had an entirely different dynamic when Opel was paired with another comic scene stealer, Bryan Batt, during the workshop last spring. Unfortunately, the play has been produced without Batt (who had other commitments), but that very fine dramatic actor, Maxwell Caulfield, stepped in at the last minute to take his place. Except it is neither a good role for Caulfield, nor a good move for the play. Both suffer for this casting decision. Caulfield can do a lot of wonderful things on a stage, but being funny isn't one of them. His inclusion in the piece only reinforces the sense that this is a star vehicle for Opel.
The casting of Caulfield also highlights the weakness of the script. Opel gets golden laughs out of lines made of straw; she can pull that off with her rubbery face and a voice as versatile as a twelve-lane highway. It no fault of his own, but Caulfield doesn't have that gift. Some of the other comic cast members get some laughs – which they have to earn – but they make it work: Jay Rogers, Kevin Townley and Geoffrey Molloy (all in drag) bring the right comic tone to the piece. Lori Gardner is a hilarious dumb blonde, and Michael Hunsaker has nothing if not presence.
Absolutely worth seeing because of Opel's performance (she plays two roles with equal relish – after all, she's the hot dog), the play is less than the sum of its parts. One wonders, as an afterthought, why Epperson didn't turn this into a musical ...
4 Stars: Dan Fogler, 2 Stars: The Voyage of the Carcass
The Voyage of the Carcass is about to sink beneath the theatrical waves; its closing notice has been posted. There are a few things, however, that you should know about this production before it fully disappears. Granting that the play is a wildly self-indulgent play-within-a-play, Dan Fogler's performance is charisma personified. Looking like a young Orson Welles and acting with the swagger to match, he is utterly electric on stage. The play's loose nature only amplifies the presence of his personality; he seems to be playing himself as much as his character.
We're not going to waste your time describing the plot, but suffice to say that there is more talent on stage than in the script. In addition to Fogler's fascinating performance, his two co-stars, Kelly Hutchinson and Noah Bean, are both obviously talented and winning in their own rights. It's rather a testament to all three of them – and perhaps to the director, Randy Baruh - that they manage to shine in a play that ought to otherwise bury their talent. We mention the director because there are several set pieces within the play that suddenly erupt with imagination; these are the tent poles that keep the entire enterprise afloat and give the actors some room to display their gifts.
1 Star: My Name is Rachel Corrie
We can give this earnest piece of political theater a single accolade for courage. Unlike so many plays that preach to the choir, here is an unabashedly pro-Palestinian/anti-Israeli one-person show that has arrived in the one city where it is most likely to be abhorred for its political point of view. It's only because liberal and free-thinking New Yorkers who make up so much of the theatergoing public in this city will give any underdog a chance – and because the piece carries the impressive imprimatur of theater and movie star Alan Rickman as its co-editor and director – that Rachel Corrie is still running.
The commercial prospects of the play aside; this is one work of political theater that deserves to close purely on its artistic demerits. It's putrid theater. It starts off with a modicum of theatricality but quickly descends into nothing more than pure soap box speechifying. It is, in a word, boring. Megan Dodds, who plays American activist Rachel Corrie, is not to blame; it's the script and the ultimate lack of direction provided by Mr. Rickman that makes this play so tedious. It doesn't help that the script is so lopsided in favor of the Palestinian cause, giving no credence whatsoever to the Israeli point of view, but a more cleverly written and dramatized play might have finessed that failure. We're all in favor of political art. But make it artful.
Barbara and Scott