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Free To Be Friends

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

If you've been away too long from the feel-good 1970s - you know, the years that produced such landmark TV events as Free to Be... You and Me and The Magic Garden - how can you not relish this trip down memory lane? To find again (or for the first time) a world where lesbianism is openly celebrated, free expression by the truckload is encouraged, and only guns are forbidden, you need search no further than this year's Fringe Festival.

The 13th Street Repertory Company is currently housing Sue Galloway and Julie Klausner's delightfully twisted Free to Be Friends, an acid trip down memory lane for all those who miss (or missed) the most progressive years of public television. A program note from Gloria Steinem, describing the chaotic one-night stand of Free to Be Friends in 1972, places the action for us, but it's unnecessary. As soon as Betty Maddox (Galloway) starts strumming her acoustic guitar and Joan Stein (Klausner) breaks out her tambourine, the intervening years melt away, and the most innocent of pleasures are - however briefly - all that matter.

Betty and Joan cavort together through cooking segments, joke interludes, and inspirational speeches, all in pursuit of educating their young viewers about "Changes." Puberty, death, self-help - Betty and Joan (with occasional assistance from their papier-mâché owl neighbor, Shylock) cover it all, peppering their demonstrations and entertainment with long-held wisdom ranging from "It's okay to be okay with being yourself" and "Even though we're gay, it doesn't mean we don't care about having flexible bodies."

As it unfolds, Free to Be Friends (which has been smartly, if loosely, directed by Dyna Moe) begins to comment more and more on the action, with Betty and Joan variously led to consider whether their outlooks and actions are truly in the best interest of others, or just themselves. ("Nerdy birdy" Shylock, voiced by Neil W. Casey, is generally on hand to illuminate the women's own exclusive tendencies.) These moments of self-awareness, if understandably included to add additional relevance to a potentially irrelevant parody, are invariably the most straining.

Even in the breezier scenes, Free to Be Friends misses almost as often as it hits, with few jokes proving truly unanimous crowd-pleasers. But they all demonstrate Galloway and Klausner's willingness to take risks, and not always travel the easiest road, which does ultimately pay some dividends. At 45 minutes in length, the show stops short of committing the cardinal sin of this type of stage parody: running too long.

The snappy onstage rapport between the two actor-creators, as well as their unique comedic sense (perhaps most obvious during Shylock's animated mental breakdown during story time), suggests that a less fitful evening of entertainment is possible: One hopes the Fringe Festival run will give them a better idea of what's going too far and what's not going far enough. (A scene in which Joan's ancient mother, stumbled through by John Gemberling, visits the Enchanted Patio is the show's biggest missed opportunity.)

But as any good liberal cook will tell you, you can't bake a self-esteem cookie without breaking some eggs. If some parts of Free to Be Friends are a tad undercooked, that can always be remedied. Given the show's theme, I'm reluctant to advise Galloway and Klausner to return to the kitchen, but if you have the recipe for a capricious comic feast, why settle for just four courses?

Free To Be Friends
Through August 21
Running Time: 45 minutes with no intermission
13th Street Repertory Company, 50 West 13th Street
Tickets online and Festival Performance Schedule:

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