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Dial 'N' for Negress

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Kevin Smith Kirkwood
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Entertainment genres, like foods, do not always easily blend. Just as most chefs would not dare put chocolate-coated haddock nuggets on their restaurants' menus, so too would most showmakers recognize the inherent danger of merging Blaxploitation satire, gay self-actualization uplift, and musical comedy pizzazz within a single show. As Dial ‘N' for Negress, the Kevin Smith Kirkwood-Travis Kramer-Tom Oster show at the Clurman Theatre, proves, these are three theatrical tastes that do not go great together.

Conceived by Kirkwood (who stars and, with Oster, wrote the music) and lyricist-librettist Kramer, and directed by Jake Hirzel, the show tries too hard to have it all and ends up with practically nothing going for it except for the basic foundation of its story. The flamboyantly flaming Br'er Negress (Kirkwood) embarks on a life of crime-crushing with two liberated prostitutes, trying to save the streets of Soulsville from a corrupt cop (Eric Roediger) and the gay mafia don (James Solomon Benn) who controls it from inside with drugs and even rougher trade. Negress and his henchwomen (Pilin Anice and Emily McNamara, playing the appropriately named Black Mama and White Mama) are determined not just to navigate the human detritus of the slum but also make it safe and enjoyable for everyone to live in.

There are isolated moments of inspiration that suggest the idea's potential as a tight-and-trim lark; Negress's using his undulating dance moves as projectile weapons, and his ability's impact on the climactic fight scene, is a clever concept worth exploring. But most of the comedic elements collide so uneasily within scenes that lurch about with so little direction over two hyperextended hours that the evening unfolds to almost nonexistent merriment.

Part of the problem is that Blaxploitation in general comes across today as its own kind of parody, and doubling up on that sort of thing typically halves the hilarity. A more serious issue is that, in their book and songs, the authors don't delve into the nooks and crannies of the fascinating societal shake-up they've concocted. So disconnected is the show's world from any sense of hard-knock reality (the policeman is named Dick McGuffin, and two other male characters are called Doodlebug and Bumpy Ritz) that the central joke, of an out-and-proud gay man stepping into the role of take-back-the-streeter that was usually filled by the hardest and most viciously masculine actors, is never allowed the opportunity to be funny. Innumerable laughs are lost just in this downplaying (if not outright ignoring) of the premise.

The songs don't help much. They capture a bass-rich funk flavor essentially appropriate to the Melvin Van Peebles and Isaac Hayes compositional school, with occasional suggestive echoes of hip-hop and rap, but feel like clumsy ornamentation that, except during the bubblier moments of Jennifer L. Mudge's enthusiastic but unexciting Solid Gold choreography, don't want to contribute much to the storytelling. (That the songs sport fewer buttons than Sidney Shannon's glitzily low-cut costumes only amplifies the deleterious effect.)

If the show too often seems that it would benefit from dropping its musical pretensions altogether, Kirkwood is an energetic leading man who makes Negress a naturally rhythmic anchor for the action. But convincing as he is traversing the role's glam-heaviest requirements, he's not particularly effective otherwise. He seems less a broken, repaired, and determined score-settler than he does a sunny department store window dresser on the perpetual verge of a hissy fit; he never conveys authority over anything, including his character, which makes the rabble-rousing Negress an impossible sell. Benn, Anice, and McNamara meet the minimum requirements of their most significant of the supporting roles, but most of the other performers have too little to do to make a significant impression.

The exception is Bree Daniels, who's a comic marvel as Fancy, a coked-out street girl who can't quite swing going straight. The ways she deadpans her lustrous baritone speaking voice through attempts to finance her next fix with food stamps or a double-endorsed check, babbles about the nutritional benefits of the farmer's market she longs to open, or mentions freebasing as casually as most people would relate a trip to the post office, represent exactly the style and tone all of Dial ‘N' for Negress needs: the unforgiving lingo and circumstances of the ghetto filtered through our own wry contemporary sensibility. Kirkwood, Oster, and Kramer haven't tapped into this enough to make their show work overall, but Daniels goes a long way to making sure the audience doesn't completely get the shaft.

Dial 'N' for Negress
Through September 26
Clurman Theater, 410 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Running Time: 2 hours, with one intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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