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Inner Voices

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 13, 2016

Nancy Anderson
Photo by Carol Rosegg

In musicals, where every lyric, note, and dance step can (and should) have a precisely articulated and energized purpose, it's not easy to capture stasis in an exciting way. But Dan Collins and Julianne Wick Davis, with a little (okay, a lot) of help from Nancy Anderson, have done just this in "The Pen," one of the three one-act, one-person musicals comprising this year's installment of Inner Voices, at the TBG Theatre.

It's the titular writing instrument that sends Laura into hysterics. It's purple and in her purse! But it's not hers! Where did it come from? Why is it there? Whose teeth marks are etched into it? And isn't it just covered with germs? Laura, an obsessive-compulsive (at best), can't shake these thoughts and all the complicated feelings they arouse as soon as she pulls out the pen, and it seems certain that, for at least a few minutes, this tiny piece of ink-filled plastic will destroy her life from the inside out.

We soon learn that there's a lot more to the story, and that Laura may not be as deranged as she initially appears. But while Collins (words) and Wick Davis (music) are only moderately successful in finding emotional excitement in Laura's plight, Anderson, who's playing her, has no trouble bridging the gap. With a manic look in her eyes, and her classical soprano wavering in intensity as Laura explores her own reactions, Anderson makes her at once the epitome of a modern woman (she lives, alone, in Milwaukee) and the timeless archetype of tortured bird longing for release from the cage of her own creation.

She's cacklingly funny one minute (an insistent self-determination number called "Coffee Bitch" would bring down the house if the writers, and their director Margot Bordelon, allowed applause breaks) and heartbreaking in plumbing the depths of Laura's defining loss the next, and she makes tiny three-act plays of such simple acts as searching for keys or spraying disinfectant. (One scene, in which she attacks a garbage can, is its own kind of demented ballet.) Anderson's performance is gorgeous, surprising, and unsettling, and fully uses, across some 40 minutes, the vast span of gifts one of New York's singular, and singularly underutilized, talents.

Michael Thurber
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Though it's drastically smaller in dramatic scope, the third musical of the evening "The Booty Call" is more adventurous in a couple of ways. Written by Michael Thurber (words and music), who also stars, and director Saheem Ali, it's set in the bedroom–recording studio of a 28-year-old man named Gabe who's trying to finish producing his record, but distracted by his iPhone. It keeps ringing with calls from the woman he met a few days earlier and wants him to come over. The question of whether he should or shouldn't is not easy to answer, as he doesn't have much of a relationship history, and his luck with one-night-stands is particularly bad. And he does have his record to finish.

Thurber weaves Gabe's psychological meanderings into the score by way of a synthesizer setup he uses to sample, record, and playback various sounds and snippets that become the musical underscoring for his life. Watching Gabe build his songs, and by extension his story, from the ground up is a terrific concept that never gets tiring, especially as Thurber keeps introducing new applications of what he's already used and layers them until the past and present are no longer distinguishable.

The resulting compositions, however, are not that distinctive—a lot of movement-challenged musical muttering that's almost too good at propelling us into Gabe's restless subconscious. Thurber is enormously charming, and ensures that we care about Gabe, and whether he overcomes his sexual difficulties and social hang-ups, through sheer force of will. But we don't buy, as we should, that the songs Gabe crafts are the curatives they appear to be for him. Without that, his journey, whether at the synth or beside someone in bed, strikes an unsatisfying chord.

T. Oliver Reid
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Similarly scuttled by its ambition is the third piece, but the first you see, "Just One 'Q.'" Written by Ellen Fitzhugh (words) and Ted Shen (music), it tries to populate both sides of a Scrabble championship at a hospital as viewed through the eyes of an orderly named Benny (T. Oliver Reid). "I got keys t' all these rooms," he sings at the very start, "but none t' unlock these hearts."

He's not quite right about that, as Reid and Fitzhugh nicely articulate both Julynne and Bertha (two elderly, Southern, African-American women) as they bicker and wilt while trying to make sense of the board on which they're playing, the lives they've lived, and the conflicts that have developed between them.

Unlike "The Pen" and "The Booty Call," though, "Just One 'Q'" doesn't really need music beyond that of its colorful personalities, which, under the deft direction of Brad Rouse, Reid so adeptly and joyously projects. He slides, with salad oil slickness, between the three characters, but can't prevent the whole thing from registering as a gimmick. Shen (A Second Chance) specializes in subdued, conversational scoring, which just mutes the naturally lilting rhythms of these remarkable women. Any number of one-person shows create entire communities within the confines of a theater, but songs need to expand and deepen how we view people, not merely provide the same information with pretty underscoring.

That's why "The Pen" works so well—Laura could not exist without her singing, and her troubles would have no dimension were they not set against an American quasi-operetta score. The medium elevates the message, and then Anderson elevates that—before long, something huge has grown out of something tiny enough to fit in a breast pocket. That's how musicals are supposed to work. But except for "The Pen," the other stories in this Inner Voices are just too inner for their—or our—own good.

Inner Voices
Through October 29
TBG Theatre, 312 West 36th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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