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Regional Reviews: New Jersey

The Tangled Skirt: Stylish Hard Boiled Pulp Fiction with Tongue Planted Firmly in Cheek

Also see Bob's review of Charlotte's Web

Carmit Levité and Vince Nappo
A sharply dressed man enters a small, deserted bus depot in the wee small hours of the morning, pulls a small voice recorder from his overnight bag, switches it on, and speaks into it:

There was no moon on this dark, dank night. The rain-slick streets a relentless reminder that this is indeed a slippery world. The faint light inside the teetering bus depot offered little illumination, emitting, instead, the fatal glimmer of dread. He sat alone in the deserted station, his isolation looming as its own unnerving threat. A prelude, a warning perhaps, of what this moonless night had in store for him. He wondered, if he vanished that night, never to be seen or heard from again, if anyone would know. If anyone would care. He knew the terrible answer, but was more concerned about getting a proper burial. Everyone should get a proper burial. Even people like him. But he knew, more likely, some overly curious kids, poking around where they shouldn't be poking, will find his bones, fifty years from now, brittle and nameless in the dirt. They'll be too dumb to know at that tender age that things you touch, especially things you shouldn't, become part of you forever.

Thus begins The Tangled Skirt, a world premiere play by Steve Braunstein which expertly and deliciously both honors and sends up the great hard-boiled stories and novels of such masters of the art as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and, later, John D. MacDonald.

Without going beyond its stylistic boundaries, Braunstein recreates the genre at its most purplish and overripe edge. The result is the highest form of literary satire, that is satire which clearly loves and respects its target. Both the format and essential subject here is the genre of pulp fiction itself.

Bailey Bryce, the dapper man who has entered the bus depot, is shortly followed in by Rhonda Claire (as she is addressed throughout by Bryce), who is a curvaceous, glamorously dressed, and surely deadly femme fatale. Rhonda Claire and Bailey are both awaiting a bus that will take them from this unnamed, dreary, tired tiny burg across the Canadian border to Thunder Bay. Rhonda Claire doesn't know Bailey and, at first, he doesn't appear to know her. We are kept guessing just who Bryce is and what he intends to accomplish. Given that this is a two-character play, it is amazing that there are so many twists and turns, and genuine surprises, to which Braunstein delightfully treats us in this tale of passion, greed, deceit and murder. Just when you think that you have it all figured out, The Twisted Skirt may add (I'm thinking, I'm thinking) an at-the-buzzer twist to further tickle the brain.

Carmit Levité is an amazing find for the role of Rhonda Claire. She gives the role her best Double Indemnity Barbara Stanwyck, and tops the screen legend with looks that make her a ringer for the painted redheaded femme fatale featured in the poster art for the Larry Gelbart/ Cy Coleman/ David Zippel City of Angels. To paraphrase Gelbart, Levité's legs are so long that they would go on forever if they weren't stopped by the floor. Vince Nappo gives a solid noirish performance as Bryce.

The scenic design by Jessica Parks is extraordinary. As I've noted before, the narrow, relatively deep stage has frequently provided well solved scenic challenges. However, Parks' work is unique in that it provides a sense of a large, complexly realistic area which appears to expand into the auditorium. Both sides of the stage are angled from near center stage at the rear out to the far corners at the front of the stage. However, there are alcoves and a part of a hallway at stage left beyond this framing that actually widen the playing area to full stage width, and also create a sense of additional space beyond. Strategically placed doors and windows add to the sense of spaciousness. There is a look of concrete solidarity to all of this which suggests an improbably high design budget. In any event, this set would be a valuable and fascinating study for students of set design.

Director Evan Bergman has deployed his actors well about the complex, deeply angled set so that the play never becomes visually static, and directed them to always maintain the stylization that the play requires. Patricia E. Doherty's stylish costumes also enhance the genre. This is particularly true for Rhonda Claire's black leather jacket over a black skirt with a dark red scarf at the neck and a matching dark red travelling case. When the jacket is removed, Rhonda Claire is seen to be wearing a white blouse. I would have thought that a black blouse would better fit her image, but that may be only an addition to the many reasons I do not design costumes.

I've been re-reading those opening lines from The Tangled Skirt quoted at the top of this review. They keep putting a smile on my face. If your reaction is the same, then you are bound to have a really good time now through January 23 at the New Jersey Rep.

The Tangled Skirt continues performances (Eves: Thurs., Fri. & Sat. 8 pm/ Mats: Sat. 3 pm; Sun. 2 pm) through January 23, 2011 at the New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, New Jersey 07740; box office: 732-229-3166; on-line:

The Tangled Skirt by Steve Braunstein; directed by Evan Bergman

Bailey Bryce...................Vince Nappo
Rhonda Claire................Carmit Levité

Photo: : SuzAnne Barabas

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