Past Reviews

Off Broadway Reviews

Paper Dolls

Reasonable Doubt

Part of the
New York International Fringe Festival - FringeNYC

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

Paper Dolls

Whether at the grocery store's checkout line, at one of Manhattan's countless newsstands, or on any of hundreds of delicious trashy websites, celebrity gossip is often as unavoidable as it is irresistible. It's hard not to derive a vicarious thrill from famous people getting what's supposedly coming to them, being brought down low from their assumed-secure position in the high life. The funniest thing about gossip, though, is that it never seems as bone-rattlingly exciting when it's about you.

So in his punchy but paunchy play Paper Dolls, Patrick Huguenin, an entertainment columnist for the New York Daily News who also once worked on its Rush & Molloy column, explores exactly this: what happens when gossip maven Claire Cunningham (Jen Jamula) becomes the victim of a gossip campaign rather than just the perpetrator of one. Seeing her face on the front page of the paper - and her name in legal documents relating to the high-profile divorce she was part of - puts her muckraking career in perspective.

Well, sort of. Since Huguenin has been (more or less) in Claire's position, he's neither unsympathetic toward her nor willing to dismiss gossip as easily as others might: Like all elemental forces, it can be employed for purposes of both good and evil, and you eventually see it used for both. Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch is right in sync with Huguenin's outlook, staging Paper Dolls with a breathless, what-happens-next immediacy that turns each of the playwright's hard-cooked scenes into precisely pointed blind items.

But Huguenin tends to take things both too far and not far enough. He spins one heck of a yarn, but his story is unrecountably complex and at times not easy to follow: Much of the play seems to be about finding ever-more bizarre combinations in which to arrange Claire, her Oscar-winning-but-on-the-outs brother Austin (Billy Magnussen), his secretive-slutty girlfriend Isabel (Ashley Morris), and Claire's icy counterpart at a competing newspaper Tammy (Allison Goldberg), without ever stopping the flow of juice. Especially in the final 20 minutes or so, there are too many twists for the play's own good.

And while all four performers masterfully wield the barbs he gives them, Huguenin never displays in his writing quite the acerbic bite of classic media-denunciation titles like The Front Page or Chicago. Confrontations are exciting but toothless, wisecracking but not witty, as though the playwright is trying to excite everyone but indict no one. For fear of litigation, perhaps? One doesn't doubt that Huguenin knows where he can go and where he can't. Paper Dolls's copious fun comes from seeing just how far he can push those boundaries - it's unsatisfying only because you're never convinced Huguenin is really going far enough.

Tickets online, Venue information, and Performance Schedule: The New York International Fringe Festival - FringeNYC

Reasonable Doubt

Guilt and innocence take on vivid new dimensions in Reasonable Doubt, Australian playwright Suzie Miller's chilling look at what happens when the law and the libido intersect. Australia's court system may have a wrinkle or two ours does not - such as not requiring unanimous verdicts from its juries - but it's clear that questions about the nature of justice and the people involved with making it transcend lines on maps.

They transcend hearts as well, and that's the problem facing Anna (Jeanette Cronin) and Mitchell (Nick Flint): They met, and had the briefest of flings two years ago, when they were both jurors on a headline-making murder trial. They came down on opposite sides of the decision - she was convinced of the defendant's guilt, he so certain of innocence that he forced the jury to hang at the last moment - but were willing to discard their emotional lives for the thrill they found in the other, which they've decided to consummate on the eve of the retrial.

Though Miller stealthily moves between the couple's warring hotel-room and courtroom romances, never allowing either to take precedence for long, the love plot is a bit faded in comparison: You never completely believe that Anna and Mitchell's sexless one-night stand could have as many devastating repercussions as the story requires. The jury-room politics, on the other hand, and the revelations about which of them really believed what and why, make for a gently gripping legal thriller as the details unfold.

With Miller's dramatic weaving, Lee Lewis's connecting threads of staging emphasizing the luxurious claustrophobia in which Anna and Mitchell have imprisoned themselves, and compelling, borderline-brittle performances from Flint and Cronin (who is especially effective at depicting unrequited obsession), Reasonable Doubt plays extremely well. Perhaps too well, actually: Seeing how these two submit to, and then subvert the criminal justice system, even if it's "just" Australia's, might forever change the way you view verdicts of guilt, and innocence, and the all-too-human people who hand them down.

Tickets online, Venue information, and Performance Schedule: The New York International Fringe Festival - FringeNYC

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