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A CurtainUp Review

Midtown International Theatre Festival

"How He Lied to Her Husband" and "The Music Cure" | Barstool Words

by Les Gutman

End of summer in the city means, more than ever, festival days. Downtown's Fringe Festival (now the old kid in town as it celebrates its 4th season) has a new competitor: the Midtown International Theatre Festival. This Festival boasts 19 productions presented between August 9 and September 3 at 4 (air-conditioned, we are promised) venues within a four-block radius of 8th Avenue and 42nd Street. Tickets are inexpensive ($12 or less), and can be obtained from Ticket Central (212) 279-4200. A list of all of the shows can be found below, but much more information, including a complete schedule, is available on the Festival website.

We have seen and reviewed of two Festival productions: A Selection of One-Act Plays by G. B. Shaw ("How He Lied to Her Husband" and "The Music Cure") and Barstool Words. The choice is not wholly incidental. They reflect the Festival's broad range fairly well: one a faithful production of the work of major playwright (Shaw), the other a terrific production of a new play by a young, substantially unknown writer whose name ought to be added to everyone notebook in ink (Josh Ben Friedman).

Review: A Selection of One-Act Plays by George Bernard Shaw 
  It takes a fair amount of chutzpah to pair two one-act plays that have been subtitled a "Trifling" ("How He Lied To Her Husband") and "A Piece of Utter Nonsense," ("The Music Cure"), and then to ask audiences to traipse well west of Tenth Avenue and down a flight of stairs to see them. But in this, as in the plays they have staged, The Deptford Players seem to know what they are doing. 

Shaw's wit here is neither as intense nor as lacerating as in his full length plays, and heaven knows he doesn't delve very deeply into "issues," but there's something interesting about both of these works which are together performed quite painlessly in just under an hour. "How He Lied" deals with the circumstances surrounding a husband's (Christopher D. Roberts) discovery of the poetry his wife's (Stephanie Stone) lover (Jeff Berry) has written to her. A scheme, a lie, umbrage and a resolution all precede the play's ultimate punchline which is also its title. Direction, by Lorree True, and performances (if played perhaps too consciously over the top at times), are quite good, and especially so in the case of Ms. Stone. It doesn't hurt that Mr. Berry, who directs the second play, is also a fight director. 

"The Music Cure" is astonishing, not so much for the performances (which are fine) as for the subject matter. Here we meet the inveterate brat, Lord Reginald Fitzambey (Antony Ferguson), a young Member of Parliament with a penchant for pills and other treats doled out stingily by his golf-obsessed doctor (Dudley Stone). When the doctor sends "the female Paderewski," Strega Thundridge (Ms. True), to intoxicate Reggie with her piano playing (to her horror, he hates it -- he's into ragtime, not the classics), they discover their mutual affinity for S&M against the backdrop of Chopin's Polonaise in A Flat. A cold slap of reality to any contemporary playwright who imagines he or she invented kink, or women's rights, or vegetarianism... or most anything else.

Although set, sound and lighting design are fairly bare-bones, Ms. True's costumes (both she and Mr. Berry toil in many capacities both on and off-stage) are quite elaborate. Take a look also at this company's website: At Raw Space, Studio L, 529 West 42nd Street (10/11 Avs.)

Review: Barstool Words

Far less painless pleasure is found in Josh Ben Friedman's powerful roller-coaster ride of a play, Barstool Words, but the delight is more substantial. 

If you want something done right, the saying goes, do it yourself. Josh Ben Friedman has taken these words to heart. Having recently graduated from NYU's Dramatic Writing Program (with an award in hand for the best undergraduate full-length work), he brought this play (which was presented with good notices in Canada a couple of years ago under the direction of Jeff Glickman who repeats here) to his small own theater company, New Chaos Productions. The result is an uncommonly good staging of a thoroughly surprising play. 

Barstool is thoughtful, resonant and yet exceptionally funny at times, an exploration of (among other things) the nature of friendship, trust, love and self. Friedman has a marked way with words that will hold him in good stead as he becomes the significant playwright he seems earmarked to become. He also has a great deal to say about the way we use words, the effects they can have, their limits and the fine line that exists between words and actions.

All of this is set not in a bar, as the title might suggest, but in the "bachelor pad" of Craig Blackshear (Erin Gann), mostly late a night. (There are a couple of suggestions Craig might be gay; Chauncey Van der Hoff's set makes it clear this is not a gay man's apartment.) We are in the town of New Essex, and we watch what I guess I'd call a love pentagon unfold. Craig is shell-shocked. In his late twenties and dating a girl a decade younger, he is drawn into a dangerous minefield. He's asked his estranged high school buddy, Terry Seville (Donovan Patton), to help him sort things out, but the circumstances are far more complex. Both have become entwined in a spider's web and the way Friedman has it play out is as inventive as it is riveting and emotionally exhausting. 

Much of the invention appears to result from Friedman's collaboration with director Glickman. There is extraordinary intricacy and depth to the result. They've also benefited from being able to cast the play remarkably well. Patton's eccentric rendering of Terry is delicious; he's a formidable stage presence whose work is as intelligent as it is perceptive. While he hits the ground running, Gann takes a bit longer to get warmed up. At the outset, Craig seems the more submissive character. But as the play's intensity heightens, Gann shines and we come to appreciate his carefully modulated performance and particularly fine comic sense. "Take a deep breath and all that nervousness becomes anticipation." 

The play is not yet perfect. Some of Friedman's more strident dialogue feels strained and succumbs to the temptation to over-integrate its anger with humor. Occasionally, funny bits seem to reside where they are not needed. At 90 minutes, the play never feels long, but there are a few points where it would be tighter without these diversions. This does not undercut Friedman's keen language or astute storytelling skills.

If discovering the unexpected is a goal of summer theater festivals, Barstool Words sets the bar very high. A needle in a haystack, I'd call this a real find. New Chaos has a website right where you might guess: At Common Basis Theatre, 750 8th Av #500 (@47 St.).
Complete List of Plays in the Festival:

American Story by Laurel Vartabedian and Bill Evans. A musical.

Barstool Words by Josh Ben Friedman. Reviewed above.

Cognomen by Peter Galman. 

Cultural Refugee by Wednesday Kennedy. Kennedy is an Australian performer.

Durang by the Dozen: No Guns, No Sofas. Twelve short plays by Christopher Durang. 

I Took Your Name, written and performed by Michael Howard Nathanson. Another play by way of Canada.

Icons & Outcasts by Suzanne Bachner. An all-female reprise of a play from last season.

Java Jive by Hank Meyerson.Six one-act plays. 

Jihad by Ann Chamberlin.

Little Delusions. Three one-act plays.

The Lover by Harold Pinter.

Marat/Sade by Peter Weiss. 

A Memory Play by Bob Stewart. 

Pericles by William Shakespeare. 

A Selection of Plays by G.B. Shaw: How He Lied to Her Husband and The Music Cure. Reviewed above. 

Splash! 2000. Eight new short plays.

sTop-Less Go-Go Girls at the Troll Hole by Charles Battersby.

Three Plays by Beckett: A Piece of Monologue, Act Without Words II and Not I

The Women in My Soul by Owen Robertson and Michael David Brown. 

 ęCopyright 2000, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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