The Siegel Column

Lady Be Good

So many political plays these days are right on the nose, leaving little room for ambiguity, but Craig Wright's Lady at the Rattlestick Theater is a political play that offers so many unexpected layers of meaning, plus characters so rich in their own histories, that easy political statements will not be found here. More to the point, this is not a political play that preaches to the converted. Rather, it looks at our current crisis in leadership and challenges both the right and the left, finding fault all round. It does so through a story of three old friends on a hunting trip that is told with humor, pathos and some of the best acting you will see this season.

The "lady" of the title is a beloved dog owned by Kenny (Michael Shannon). The "lady" of the title is also a metaphor for America. Lady Liberty, perhaps? In any event, the metaphor is light and you can take it or leave it, which is the way metaphors sit best these days. We hear Lady bark and run away, unseen, in the dark woods created in tandem by set designer John McDermott and lighting designer Nicole Pearce. The authenticity of the moment is further enhanced by exceptional sound design by Eric Shim. Having parked their car and lost the dog, two of the hunters, Kenny and Dyson (Paul Sparks), come center stage and the story unfolds ...

In brief, these are two of three old friends laboring in middle age, their dreams torn and tattered. Kenny is a dope-smoking movie fanatic who has a business to which he rarely attends. His wife is dying of cancer. His adult life seems to be one long lump of denial. Meanwhile, his old friend Dyson is coiled with anger. He's impatient for their third friend to arrive. Graham (David Wilson Barnes) is their local congressman, someone who has shot way past them in fame and fortune. But it was Kenny's money (an inheritance) that paid for that first campaign that put Graham in office, and it was Dyson, Graham's campaign manager, who came up with the strategy to win that first election. Now, however, there is nothing but bitterness because Dyson's eighteen-year-old son, after hearing a pro-Bush, pro-Iraq war speech by Graham, has decided to join the Marines and go to Iraq. All Dyson wants is for Graham to call his son on the phone and tell him not to join, but Graham won't do it.

The dialogue between Kenny and Dyson is funny, biting and not a little sad. Dyson, we learn, is a philandering husband. But then we learn lots of things about these two men that make them real to us. Information is revealed in natural bits and pieces as the men share memories, bicker and wait for Graham ... and the explosive confrontation that is sure to come.

The direction by Dexter Bullard is tight to the point of gripping. The small Rattlestick stage is a blessing in that regard because the claustrophobia of this three-way friendship is enhanced by their forced closeness. All of the staging is in service to a script that might seem, to a casual viewer, as an engaging ramble, but we soon learn to hang on every word because we sense that even the most casual sentence has meaning.

It's the actors who ultimately make the script come alive, and this impressive three-person ensemble could hardly be improved upon. Michael Shannon is perfectly cast for his discombobulated presence. He is, at once, funny and ultimately touching. Paul Sparks once again transforms himself to play Dyson, bringing sharp humor and even sharper anger to his role. David Wilson Barnes brings a stern dignity to a role we might otherwise expect to be villainous; he's the right wing congressman that most playwrights would paint with a dark brush, but he is an honest man, doing what he believes is right—and stands up for it. He, too, is a sympathetic figure.

The point of this compelling play is that the right wing has usurped power and influence over the left largely because the left has allowed it to happen. We don't want to give away a pivotal moment in the play, but suffice it to say someone is responsible for what has happened to America and the culprit is not entirely clear. A soul-searching political play: how rare!

Lady, through September 28 at Rattlestick Theatre, 224 Waverly Place. Tickets online and current performance schedule at SmartTix

David Pittu's Comic Triumph

Ah, the aroma! What's That Smell: The Music of Jacob Sterling is a send-up of that all-too familiar strain of self-important musical theater composers, and the comedy here is so pointedly on target that you just might asphyxiate yourself with laughter. With comically portentous music by Randy Redd and hilarious lyrics by David Pittu, who also wrote the dead-on script and co-directed with Neil Pepe, this is, rightly, a triumph of satire over substance. And we mean that literally.

Constructed in the form of an interview show with host Peter Bartlett (doesn't this seem familiar?), we meet the long-suffering but soon to be famous(?) musical theater composer Jacob Sterling (David Pittu). His ridiculous career is recounted in story and song, with Sterling unctuously coming to the piano to play (okay, he doesn't really play, but that just heightens the comedy) and sing his almost hit theater songs of the past.

It's not as if Pittu is spoofing anyone in particular, but rather the musical theater culture. In that sense, we all get it and there are no references that are really too obtuse, which is a smart gambit on his part. The show is done in one swift and funny act, never overstaying its welcome.

Bartlett was born to play the role of a flamboyantly gay arbiter of musical theater taste; whom else would you cast except for maybe Edward Hibbert? But the show belongs to David Pittu. Though he has a three-person chorus (Brandon Goodman, Matt Schock, Helene Yorke) that helps sing his songs, Pittu gives a performance that is near genius. Watch him as he accepts compliments, and listen to him sing his wonderfully terrible songs with a comically noxious sincerity. It will have you on the floor having comic convulsions.

What's That Smell?: The Music of Jacob Sterling, through September 30 at Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street between 8th & 9th Avenues. Tickets online and current Performance Schedule at TicketCentral.

-- Barbara and Scott Siegel

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