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The Drunken City

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Sue Jean Kim, Maria Dizzia, and Cassie Beck.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Conventional wisdom dictates that when you open a bottle you should shut your mouth. But if you insist on pursuing a career as a temulent truth-teller, at least remember that bruised egos, busted friendships, and the dread day after occupational hazards you've got to prepare for in advance. A night of tequila shots simply isn't worth the lifetime of pain you might be creating for yourself.

This advice does not, however, go down with the punishment-free smoothness of an ice-cold Corona for everyone. Some people just have to learn the hard way. This includes the terminally temulent truth-tellers who inhabit The Drunken City, Adam Bock's new comedy at Playwrights Horizons. Plied with every kind of alcohol and charged only with the mission of finding a good time, they can't stop gabbing about anything and everything while slurping their drinks, slurring their speech, and stumbling through a frantic Saturday night in Manhattan.

Most of the talk centers on their love lives, or the lack thereof. Two of the women, Marnie and Linda (Cassie Beck and Sue Jean Kim), are engaged to be married; the third, Melissa (Maria Dizzia), recently was, but cut off her engagement when she caught her fiancé cheating on her. The two men the women meet while cavorting their way through Marnie's bachelorette party are little better: Banker Frank (Mike Colter) is still smarting from being dumped by his girlfriend Priscilla a year ago, while dentist Eddie (Barrett Foa) doesn't have much experience to speak of in the romance department.

So when the crocked quintet collide at the crossroads of consternation, things can only go in one direction: awry. Frank kisses a far-too-willing Marnie, to Melissa's outrage, then disappears with her into the night. The new duo and the uneasy trio they leave behind must face up to the event's ramifications, which ripple beyond Marnie's nuptials and into the torrent of confusion about the present and future that is the mid-20s experience for so many. It doesn't take Marnie long to question not just her love for husband-to-be Gary, but also whether her friends and her outlook on life will help her survive the years and decades ahead.

Beck's fizzy but mature performance anchors her role, and thus the whole play, well within the realm of the recognizable. Marnie is joyous but clear-headed, unpredictable but together, as likely to scream with bubbling laughter as she is to break down into sobs over the state of her riven relationship. Yet Beck never wallows; she modulates her inner censor so subtly that you can practically see the burden of her indiscriminate actions growing weightier as the fog clears from around her head. With each new minute comes a new realization, and Beck masterfully ensures that Marnie is always evolving to keep up with it.

The others give more conventionally comedic performances, which keep The Drunken City entertaining, but prevent it from being as enlightening as it wants to be. Dizzia delivers little more than an intricate pattern of unfocused anger, which highlights Maria's control-freak tendencies but tells us much less than it ought to about how she fits into the social structure of the bakery at which the three women work. Kim's delightfully dizzy as Linda, but could tone down the dopiness a shade or two to reveal the pained alcoholic beneath. Colter is too much of a cipher, effective as the Other Man but not at all convincingly distinctive for the desperate Marnie.

Barrett Foa and Alfredo Narciso.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Foa trades too easily on the gay-best-friend stereotype for Eddie, coming to unique life only in his scenes opposite Alfredo Narciso. Narciso plays Bob, the owner of the bakery, whose open-eyed cynicism is a vital clarifying force for everyone, and exactly what the ungrounded Eddie needs to find stability. When faux philosopher Eddie meets the real thing in Bob, how could sparks help but fly?

A program note from Bock suggests that the two were heavily influenced by Shakespeare, and the show's general structure (escaping one restrictive area for the freedom of another, and finding more trouble than at home) certainly suggests they're not alone. Using Eddie and Bob to tie the play to a more enduring tradition also helps solidify proceedings that are frothy nearly to the point of insubstantiality, never embracing for long most of the emotional issues it touches on.

No one but Beck develops the tasty details Bock provides to the classical depths that would justify the evening as anything more than a lively diversion. Director Trip Cullman conveys New York City's pervasive tipsiness (if sometimes going too far with the oversized seesaw that comprises the floor of David Korins's set), but never gives the play quite the sober foundation it needs to stay consistently upright. For an unmistakable drunk, a stiff infusion of strong black coffee might do the trick. You won't need the same on a tour of The Drunken City, though you might wish for an extra dash of spice that could make something extra-special out of what is otherwise a pleasant, but ordinary, libation.

The Drunken City
Through April 20
Playwrights Horizons Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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