August 2012: Select Reviews in Brief

Book and Lyrics by Bill Russell
Music by Peter Melnick
Direced by Andy Sandberg
Westside Arts Theatre
Official Website

Directed by Marc Bruni
Westside Arts Theatre
Official Website

Book by Peter Duchan
Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasak and Justin Paul
Based on a screenplay by Bob Comfort
Directed by Joe Mantello
Second Stage

Written by Woody Harrelson and Frankie Hyman
Directed by Woody Harrelson
New World Stages
Official Website

Reviewed by David Spencer

Professional is sometimes an ambiguous word. It can mean that one is getting paid, in respectable, legitimate circumstances, for practicing one’s trade; it can also describe a level of excellence that you associate with standards of taste, craft, style and polish. But as The Last Smoker in America painfully and definitively indicates, it doesn’t have to mean both at the same time. What librettist-lyricist Bill Russell has delivered here is an attenuated, puerile sketch about a housewife (Farah Alvin) in a vaguely futuristic America in which smoking is outlawed, trying to hold onto the vice that gives her existence ballast and a sense of balance. The shenanigans around all this, though. are anything but balanced and the script takes very little time to devolve into random, sophomoric, undisciplined wackiness—also involving a husband (John Bolton) who flatters himself a rocker whose time will come, but writes crappy social-protest songs; a cookie-addicted teenage son (Jake Boyd) who thinks he’s black, and an authentically black neighbor (Natalie Venetia Belcon) who has made Jesus her addiction. It’s the kind of comedy writing that doesn’t recognize the distinction between goofball attributes (which can inform character and plot complications) and goofball behavior (which flies in the face of internal logic) and as it labors, labors, labors to ratchet up the absurdity with increasingly bizarre departures from believability (which is at the core of all great comedy, even the most outrageous). It’s sub-professional on a textbook level, grating and finally exhausting. And the poor, talented cast (for whom, I must confess, I was actively embarrassed) is working so hard. With composer Peter Melnick in service to this vision, he hasn’t been able to do much except cooperate in throwing various genre song forms against the wall; and director Andy Sandberg has gone the bigger-louder-muggier route, a school of which I’m not a proponent, by the same token, I’m not surte what else he might have done with this material. (And I guess it means something that I thought about it. A lot. While I was watching the show.)


Old Jews Telling Jokes, however, is genuinely funny and for the most part takes a low key approach under the direction of Marc Bruni, who understands how often comedy isn’t a fastball, but an easy lob. Based on an internet series which shared the title and featured exactly what the title describes, the show features three mature veteran character actors (Lenny Wolpe, Tod Susman, Marilyn Sokol) and two “youngies” (Audrey Lynn Weston, Bill Army) who basically tell jokes, most flavored with a degree of Yiddishkeit, but some just delightfully “doity” (say it Brooklyn). Sometimes the jokes are told straight up, straight out; sometimes delivered in little illustrative sketches; but whatever the variation, no joke is overworked or over-delivered (though, geez, please God, we could do without Marilyn Sokol’s 20 seconds of post-punch-line mugging every time she delivers one). If you’re a veteran joke-teller (or joke listener) you know at least half the jokes and it doesn’t matter. Classics are classics for a reason. My only small objection? Near the end, they bring out a film-clip (until that point, a moving, rotating flatscreen has been used mostly for subject headers and brief illustrative animations)—they show Alan King doing his “Survived by His Wife” routine. Strictly speaking not an old Jew telling a joke, but an old Jew killing with o9ne of his best routines, but no matter; it’s so funny it fits the occasion. But here’s the problem…it throws the other performers into an unfortunate relief. In musician terms, it’s like we’ve been digging a quintet of really terrific studio players…and then, oh, by the way, allow me to introduce you to Mozart. Then again, to riff on a Mel Brooks aphorism, it’s good to see the King… (And here’s the unedited “Survived by His Wife”…)


Dogfight, just up the street a block (heading east) at the 2nd Stage Theatre is the kind of show that might give even a diehard cynic reason to believe there may be hope for American musical theatre as a mainstream genre after all. Oh, there’s no shortage of terrifically talented writers, but the opportunities they get to shine and make a living at it and have a mainstream platform are not proportionately what they once were; but the young songwriting team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have delivered a craft-literate, musically sophisticated, artistically layered score—with a sound that doesn’t confuse contemporary sensibility with contemporaneous familiarity, and a few memorable flourishes of a unique imprimatur blossoming; and librettist Peter Duchan has delivered a sweet, sensitive, economical book based on Bob Comfort’s screenplay for the 1991 film.

            Set in 1993, Dogfight tells the story of a Eddie (Derek Klena), a young marine about to be deployed to Vietnam, goaded by his similarly on-the-cusp fellow Semper Fis into finding a homely date for a dance at a local San Francisco club; he with the ugliest date wins. As such stories go, of course, he finds a girl whose inner beauty belies her plain features, Rose (Lindsay Mendez) the daughter of a single-mom diner owner (Becca Ayers); and what begins as a cruel joke becomes a battle Eddie fights with himself, with peer-pressure and even with (which is to say for) Rose when he realizes that she’s worked her way into his heart. Dogfight is one of those stories that goes nowhere surprising, but for which the key to frshness is the treatment, the telling and the particulars.

            An excellent 11-member cast under the direction of Joe Mantello, back at the top of his game, plus terrific work from the design team, fine orchestrations by Michael Starobin, and sharply evocative choreography by Christopher Gatelli add to the experience. If only those musicals yet to come this season might hover at the same level…


It would be hard to imagine a play more pointless, strident, disjointed, annoying and flabbily structured than Bullet for Adolf, self-deceptively billed as a comedy by Woody Harrelson (who also directed) and Frankie Hyman. It evidences something of Harrelson’s early roots as a sitcom actor in the legendary Cheers, in that he and Mr. Hyman have posited a collection of eccentric characters brought together at a common watering hole…but amazingly, the co-authors have provided nothing but eccentricity; nothing but the slenderest filament of what might pass for story in a press release, nothing in the way of unifying structure, nothing in the way of coherent narrative and, while we’re at it, nothing in the way of comedy. You think a guy who’d cut his teeth on one of the great performed-live sitcoms, who himself knew how to deliver a line in an easy lob, who was directed by the great James Burrows, would understand that people acting all crazy and shouty isn’t the formula for laughter, but if such understanding exists within Mr. Harrelson, he has done his best to camouflage it. I won’t beat it to death. The evening handles its own fatal thumpage all by itself.

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