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The Last Word
at The New York Musical Festival

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - July 27, 2016

A strange thing about theatre: The louder it screams "fun," the less fun it actually generates. The Last Word, written by Brett Sullivan and now playing at the Duke on 42nd Street as part of the New York Musical Festival, may as well be standing six inches away and using a bullhorn. From its frenetic opening to its hard-sell finale, it's desperate to tell you that you're having a good time, yet it seems to work just as hard to be off-putting. What this unique alchemy was supposed to achieve may be the biggest mystery yet of this year's NYMF.

It may easily be broken down into sub-mysteries, too. Why, for example, is it set in 1976, when the year itself is completely irrelevant to anything that happens in the action and just ensures ugly design and a derivative pastiche score? If Scrabble (yes, the board game) is really so integral to the plot, shouldn't Sullivan not only work harder to make us love it as much as the characters playing it ostensibly do, but also make the songs about it lively rather than turgid? And why, if the "real" story is about a group of friends coming back together after a devastating implosion of their personal bonds, are they all so unpleasant that we don't want to connect with any of them?

Answers are not forthcoming during The Last Word itself, which is styled as a competition road-trip saga gone awry. Jay (Nathan Lucrezio) needs to raise $12,000 if he's to rescue his deceased father's Indian restaurant (named Paradise) from developer Earlene Floyd (Felicia Finley), who longs to knock it down and become the queen of parking lots in Eastern Cleveland. The solution is obvious: Jay will reassemble his old Scrabble team, The Bag of Qs (the name is a setup for the one funny joke in the show), and win the grand prize at the tournament in Albuquerque. He hasn't lost touch with two members, close pals Neil (Travis Kent) and Benny (Philip Jackson Smith), but the remaining two now headquartered out of town, his sister Santine and vanished friend Carl, will need a bit more work. And did I mention that Santine is Neil's ex-romantic-interest? Or that they're bringing along Jay's father's urn for, well, reasons?

Smart choices and trackable logic do not abound here; the gang has obstacles at just the right time (bet you can't guess what happens when they try to hustle the inhabitants of a nursing home!), and turnarounds occur because otherwise nothing would happen at all. (Despite being of huge, narrative-shattering importance, one in the second act is barely even addressed in line or lyric.) Awash in smarmy, combative attitudes as written and performed, the lead quintet does not display the chemistry needed for us to believe that their scheme, or the renewed relationships that result from it, would play out as depicted. Best not to dwell, either, on why hick supreme Earlene has two brain-dead sons both named Billy Joe, or why her yearning for building parking lots is supposed to warrant a credible threat let alone anchor a convincing first-act closer. You're not supposed to take any of this seriously except when you are, apparently.

The music (well orchestrated by Conrad Helfrich) presses all the typical buttons of the era—disco, funk, country blues, and so on—with little in the way of dramatic justification. But their listlessness and pedantic lyrics aside, at least these numbers, choreographed (almost too much) by Nick Kenkel, have energy. Earlene's one-dimensional scheming songs become tiresome almost as soon as they start, and add real depth to neither her character nor the threat she poses. Worse, every Scrabble song plods and stalls, and most are statically staged with actors hunched over boards and pointing—Scrabble may not be that outwardly exciting, but even the simplest games of it that I've played or observed had more tension and sparkle than those depicted here.

Yet the assault by force never stops, not even long enough for you to catch your breath. Only Lucrezio attempts a naturalistic performance, and then succeeds only during the lower-key spoken scenes. But lacking enough innate likability and a character whose goals matter to us, he's towered over by his broadly sweeping cast mates (who also include a too-spiky Jessica Jain as Santine, an underpowered MJ Rodriguez as the Friend Formerly Known as Carl, and Herman Sebek as Jay's father's annoying ghost), and at times Jay vanishes entirely. Finley finds the best overall balance, and yanks out a few genuine laughs from Earlene's cartoonish awfulness, but can't fully compensate for how irritatingly false her character is.

Elizabet Puksto's Scrabble-board diorama set is attractive and clever; the lights (Isabella Boyd) and costumes (Christopher Vegara) are perfectly rooted in the time period, which results in a lot of garish stage pictures with greens, yellows, and browns that just don't want to cohabit. Michael Bello's direction is sparse though otherwise fine, but fails to address this basic problem—or the bigger one of what The Last Word is hoping to accomplish. It doesn't go far enough to land as pure 1970s kitsch; it doesn't care about its own rules enough to relate to, say, William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin's The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (similar enough to be a direct antecedent); and the absence of charm and warmth edge it out of traditional musical territory, too.

What does it have going for it? A killer last number that, for the only time in the evening, drops all pretense and bombast and just embraces the unbridled enthusiasm that musical theatre conjures better than almost anything else. That the song, "These Friends of Mine," is largely extraneous almost doesn't matter—you're finally seeing shared passion unite these people, and it's legitimately infectious. But so what? Any Scrabble fanatic will confirm that, because each reshapes the board for the future, all your words—not just your last word—that are important if you really want to win.

The Last Word
The New York Musical Festival occupies 7 venues in Midtown Manhattan. The New York Musical Festival Box Office and audience services Is located at 42West NY, 510 West 42nd St between 10th & 11th Avenues
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