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Al's Business Cards

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Lauren Hines and Azhar Khan..
Photo by Yaniv Shulman.

Place yourself in the custom-leather-upholstered chair of a high-powered Hollywood executive. If a brash young writer came to you pitching a sitcom about five young, quirky, and generally attractive New Jersey folks, all of whose jokes eventually return to the topic of racial prejudgment (notice: not prejudice), would you go for it? No matter how funny it is? Now, place yourself in the seat of an Off-Broadway theater and ask yourself the same questions. Do your answers change?

Josh Koenigsberg's Al's Business Cards, which just opened at the Lion Theatre, demands no more or less of its audiences than that they have satisfactory responses to these questions. That's both a blessing and a curse for this super-slight comedy: It means the play is every bit as accessible as any other network television comedy likely to air after about 8:30 PM, but it also means you shouldn't expect much in the way of searing social commentary. Race jokes, job jokes, money jokes, sex jokes, maybe a fleeting moment of reflection and out - that's all Koenigsberg is going for, and that's all he gets.

He is, however, more successful in achieving it than was Lila Rose Kaplan with the other unproduced pilot of the summer Off-Broadway season, Wildflower. She started off with a far richer situation (life at a Colorado flower festival!) but wilted when she tried to get serious. Koenigsberg gets fewer laughs from shoving together Indian-American Al Gurvis (Azhar Khan), Italian-American Barry Barrini (Bobby Moreno), plain-old White American Eileen Lee (Lauren Hines), Annoying-American Daniel Luce (Malcolm Madera), and Hispanic-American José Alvarez (Gabriel Gutiérrez), but he maneuvers more smoothly into his potent questions of what nationality and citizenship really mean.

All that comes very late, however. Of more immediate concern are Al and Barry arguing about how Indian Al really looks, and about whether Eileen is as Asian as her name implies. Al has only talked to her on the phone - the two accidentally swapped boxes of business cards at the printer's - and bets Barry that he'll be able to convince her he's Hispanic. That doesn't quite pan out - she admits she thought he sounded white on the phone, but guesses he's half Indian anyway! - but he's nonetheless intrigued with her. This doesn't sit well with Daniel, the needy husband Eileen is in the process of divorcing. He still wants her all to himself, and has even hired private investigator José to learn where she's going and whom she's with.

Most of what follows is a series of two-person routines angled around a particular nonsense subject ("tall" versus "small" coffee cups, the difference between a "gaffing assistant" and a "gassing assistant"); what could, in another show, perhaps be considered a character trait (a couple of characters are either alcoholic or like drinking more than they think they should); or even just good-old-fashioned easy targets (that Daniel's working at the Men's Wearhouse is ideal for a few chuckles). Director Lauren Keating fluidly navigates from situation to situation on Jian Jung's Spartan but serviceable unit set, and has helped the actors achieve performances of the proper height (medium), width (broad), and weight (negligible). Hines even has a few instances - but just a few - of genuine introspection that border on being moving, and you sense Khan could take his transformed Al somewhere interesting if the play didn't end first (it runs about 65 minutes).

But emotional engagement is not the point here. The laughs are, and Koenigsberg doesn't miss them in terms of their sheer number, even if he hasn't created even one convulsively hilarious gag comparable to what his most obvious TV models (Friends and Seinfeld) could apparently pop off at will. But he does openly reject Eileen's philosophy of living: "There's no such thing as fate, it's all just dumb luck." Koenigsberg hasn't trusted either. Instead, he's adopted careful planning for setting up and knocking down jokes that are good enough to keep you from changing the channel, but probably not sufficiently original to sustain a full season.

Al's Business Cards
Through August 22
Lion Theatre, Theatre Row Studios, 410 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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