Eye on Theatre: Trio Triste By JOHN SIMON

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JohnSimon_The Knockerbocker <<<The Knickerbocker. Photo by Carol Rosegg.  Simon_John-pencil drawing

When Jonathan Marc Sherman was a very young fellow back in 1988 he wrote a delightful play called Women and Wallace, It augured a fine career for him, and a career of sorts there has been. His various other plays have been mounted in good theaters in respectable productions, but none of them equaled, let alone surpassed, that teen-age effort.

So now we have Knickerbocker by the Public LAB, the experimental branch of the Public Theater. It is an 85-minute intermissionless comedy that has nothing much “fresh, raw and relevant” about it, which is the LAB’s mandate. It is routine, sporadically droll, but ultimately lackluster stuff, clearly a piece of autobiography concerning a not so young couple expecting their first offspring, with the fortyish husband in a dither about  fatherhood.

Something Sherman manifestly had to get off his chest, this, but hardly something the rest of us had to shoulder. It all takes place in a booth of the Knickerbocker Restaurant, not far from the Public, where Jerry is sweating out impending paternity. We see him with his more mature wife, Pauline, in successive stages of pregnancy, from unnoticeable to gibbous, in three scenes, the third ending the play on the eve of parturition.

In the other four scenes  we get him, respectively, with his best friend Melvin, an experienced and sardonic father; an ex-girlfriend, Tara, still a sharp-tongued friend;  another best friend, Chester, an infantile pothead; and his scientist father, Raymond, against whom he bears a grudge for not having been loving enough. There is mention of a dead mother, as in other Sherman plays. 

Jerry has a a pleasant job with the Guinness Book of Records and is an expert on trivia, which may fit in with his rather childish nature, It elicits Melvin’s, “It is really hard to pull off the ‘Hey, I’m the baby!’ thing when there’s an actual baby wearing diapers staring back at you.” And father Raymond dashes his son’s hope to graduate from therapy with ‘You don’t graduate from therapy. You leave them or they die.” This is as funny as it is ungrammatical.

A problem with Knickerbocker (also the term for an inveterate New Yorker) may be that very nearly the entire action, or inaction, is confined to that restaurant booth, however well designed by Peter Ksander. This also limits what the able director, Pippin Parker, can do, although there are some lively projections on the back wall by

Shawn Duan, which, however, achieve little beyond being distracting.

Working gallantly is an able cast, headed by Alexander Chaplin (Jerry), Mia Barron (Pauline) and Bob Dishy (Raymond). Staunch support comes from Christine Kirk, (Tara, but couldn’t she be more attractive?), Zak Orth (Chester) and Ben Shenkman (Melvin). A waiter, played by Drew Madland, gets only a couple of filler lines; a more responsible playwright would have given him at least one good one.


Kyle Dean Massey. Photo by Joan Marcus>>>

The musical Lucky Guy must also be autobiographical. With book, music, lyrics and direction by Willard Beckham, from Hominy, Oklahoma, it concerns a rube, Billy Ray Jackson, from Hominy, Oklahoma, who wins a songwriting contest with a song titled “Lucky Guy,” and comes to Nashville to make it as country western songwriter.

He falls in with the diminutive car dealer Big Al Wright (Used Cars of the Stars), and his cousin G.C. Wright, who owns Wright Track Records.

Other characters are Wanda Clark, the record company’s spunky secretary; her best friend, the beautician Chicky Lay, who is G.C.’s gal; and the diva of the Grand Ole Opry, Miss Jeannie Jeannine, played by a drag queen who goes by he name Varla Jean Merman. There is a ubiquitous male song-and-dance quartet, the Buckaroos, who pop up everywhere, as Indians, girl singers, and whatnot.

Billy Ray falls for Wanda and she for him, but there is trouble when Miss Jaennie starts romancing him, and he doesn’t even notice her gender. The humor is of the variety of Chicky’s question, when told that Billy Ray was from Hominy, “Is that somewhere near Grits?” Also of the Buckaroos, when garbed as Indians, wearing their feathers in a Mohawk.

The songs are mediocre, except for the title song, which is mediocre to fair. Rob Bissinger’s sets are on the meager side, although the pig in Pig Heaven’s neon sign sprouts a halo in one bacchanalian moment. A. C. Ciulla’s dances are only sedulously serviceable, but William Ivy Long’s costumes, the production’s chief expenditure, are worth whatever they may have cost.

The performances are adequate, with Jenn Colella’s Chicky my favorite, followed closely by Leslie Jordan’s Big Al, as funny as the text will allow, and especially amusing when side by side with the huge Varla Jean Merman, a pretty good female impersonator. Kyle Dean Massey (pictured) is a personable Billie Ray. The show has a first act likable enough in its simplistic way, but the second act is what grits your teeth.

JohnSimon_the_sphinx_winx  <<<(L-R): Beth Cheryl Tarnow (Judge), Erika Amato (Cleopatra), Ryan Williams (Soothsayer), Bret Shuford (Marc Antony), Rebecca Riker (Enobarbus), (center) Bruce Sabath (Julius Caesar). Photo by Peter James Zielinski.

I refuse to honor The Sphinx Winx with more than one paragraph. A supposedly parodic version of the Caesar-Cleopatra-Antony story, it is about as funny as a toothache. Writing, directing, acting and design would not do credit to a lowly high school, and as for the songs (the show thinks it is a musical), even a hurdy-gurdy would be too good for them. If I may be permitted to sink to the show’s level, I would affirm that the sphinx stinx. 

John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review,New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com and Bloomberg News; reviews books for the New York Times Book Review and Washington Post; and has written profiles for Vogue, Town and Country, Departures and Connoisseur and produced 17 books of collected writings. Mr. Simon holds a    PhD from Harvard University in Comparative Literature and has taught at MIT, Harvard University, Bard College and Marymount Manhattan College.

To learn more, visit the JohnSimon-Uncensored.com website.

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eHeziEye on Theatre: Trio Triste By JOHN SIMON

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