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Off Broadway Reviews

Shelf Life
Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The audience is greeted with a wide movie screen stretched across the stage as they enter the Kraine Theater. As Shelf Life, the new play that opened there last night, begins, the image of a hand appears on the far left end of the screen and slowly begins moving toward the right. A few seconds later, the hand and its attached arm have grown to span the stage. This stunning image seems the perfect way to begin a play about the dangers of shallow behavior and the acquisition of objects at the expense of personal relationships. Unfortunately, Shelf Life too easily succumbs to exactly what it wishes to warn us against.

Conceived and directed by Caden Manson, Shelf Life is a uniquely vivid cross between a movie and a play. Using three cameras, the screen, a small selection of props and photos, and seven actors, Manson fashions a world that employs both theatrical and cinematic conventions to wonderful effect. The performers are able to create close-ups, zooms, different camera angles, and complicated interaction, though the four principal players almost never touch each other directly.

For the first twenty minutes or so, this is more than enough. It is very difficult to not be entertained when Manson uses photographs of cars and dump trucks to represent the characters' vehicles, or when he works in some hilariously overt product placement. By covering or removing the obstructions from certain camera lenses and shifting the positions of the actors, he is able to create a variety of entirely new scenes and new locations, almost always in unexpected ways.

Unfortunately, when the novelty wears off, the problems begin. While striving to give Shelf Life a powerful and singular visual style, Manson and the play's author Jemma Nelson seem to have forgotten to give it a compelling, dramatic story. The script seems cobbled together, with characters written in the broadest possible strokes, and the dialogue often little more than an excuse to implement more creative camera and movement work.

As a result, we never care much about the plight of the materialistic Frankie (Vivian Bang), torn between her roommate (Rebecca Sumner Burgos), her boyfriend and boss (Tommy Lonardo), or the hunk next door (Jeffrey Rose) - nothing lies beneath her surface. The other characters in the play realize this as well, but they are every bit as one-dimensional. It is impossible, therefore, to point to a particular performance or actor as standing out. With almost nothing to act, none even begins to form the basis of a character.

Perhaps even more problematic, the action is broken at several points by monologues (delivered by the show's three "extras," Karl Stewart, Cary Curran, and David Commander) that are not directly connected to the action. If Manson's intent was to give the main four actors an opportunity to change costumes or adjust a portion of the set, that is understandable, but the stark difference in tone between the play itself and these sequences is jarring and confusing.

Nonetheless, Manson must be given his fair due, his staging of both the theatrical and cinematic elements often make you forget about the cliched situations and trite dialogue that make up the play's story. Whether a play or a movie, it is usually the story and the quality of the writing that give a work its staying power. As a combination of theatrical and cinematic know-how, Shelf Life succeeds abundantly. However, without quality writing, expect this play's shelf life to be short.


Big Art Group presents
Shelf Life
by Jemma Nelson
Conceived and Directed by Caden Manson
The Kraine Theatre
in the KGB Complex, 85 East 4th Street between 2nd Avenue and Bowery
Tickets: $15
For information and reservations: (212) 726-1161

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