My stomach muscles are “STIFF” from laughing like an unblocking drain during the performance of this funny bone tickling show-within-a-show. It’s got a “Noises Off” (Michael Frayn) kind of farce funniness to it where we are privy to the behind the scenes machinations of a show on the verge of exploding. Hearty thigh slaps and the elbowing of my plus-one in the ribcage at every punchline, has meant this production has indeed left its mark on us in hilarity bruises –the best kind. It’s one of those shows that I think will be around for a long time because the script is so expertly constructed (Jeff Swearingen –you wondrous wordsmith!) that everyone is going to want to perform it, produce it, direct it and savor it.
It’s described as “Bullets Over Broadway” meets “Weekend at Bernies” and is set in the Broadway boom of the 1950’s. So, a smorgasbord of starlets, producers, playwrights, directors and corpses. The plot is centered around the opening of a new production called “The Blighted Heart” at an off-off Broadway theater, the Tin Box. In the audience is the legendary critic –Mickey Blake. At the curtain, the producer Saul Solomon, writer Robert Grey and director Stanley Miller discover that Mr. Blake has in fact died during the performance. The trio attempt to hide his death so they can write a fantastic fake review of their show and hope it hits the stands before his body is discovered. That’s the plan. Then glorious chaos ensues…
Playwright, Jeff Swearingen, has created a cast of characters that actors will give a kidney to play. The dialogue is clever, fast-paced, character driven and delicious. You might die laughing. Director, Andy Baldwin, provides innovative staging that acts as a highly sprung trampoline for the hilarious dialogue. He has ingeniously crafted each moment so you do not miss a beat of the comedy. It’s a non-stop, exhilarating fun house ride under his flawless direction.
The cast are to exist for! Joshua Morgan as Stanley Miller, the exasperated director, is utterly captivating as the earnest and instantaneously lovable peacekeeper. He has to carry the burden of all of the self absorbed personalities around him and looks like he is attempting to hold Vesuvius from detonating from within. Nicolas Greco as Saul Solomon, the hyper active producer is a fireball of energy on stage. You get wrapped up in his spinning vortex and its pure addictive, adrenaline fueled character brilliance. He is quite extraordinary, giving a beautifully observed and highly detailed performance of the “stereotypical” producer of the time. His natural enthusiasm on the stage is palpable. Mitch Lerner as Robert Grey, the playwright, gives us a stunning tortured artist full of vulnerability and navel gazing. He wears the mantle of melancholic writer superbly. These three leads are not only exquisite in their individual roles but together form a formidable threesome that drive the engine of the entire piece.
Amandina Altomare, as the leading lady, Vanessa Verkamp, has a striking presence and commands attention with her audacious character choices. She is like Scarlett O’Hara with pop ‘n lock Tourette’s syndrome. Every heightened emotion she attempts as the “star”, is accompanied by a physical accent that sets the fabric layers of her hoop dress quivering. She made me laugh like a barking seal at feeding time. A magnificent talent.
Jeff Swearingen (yes, the writer) plays the part of Guy Van, the male lead, who is slow to every party. I could write a dissertation on his characterization. It’s deeply satisfying and insanely funny. Jennifer Robbins as Maggie Simons plays the young ingénue fated to play the support role in “The Blighted Heart”, but is actually the only one with any talent in the script. Her portrayal of the hardworking, sensitive starlet was mesmerizing.
I loved Lori Funk’s bombastic drunk, Hilary Doyle-Blake, the wife of the dead critic. She commanded the stage with the force of shifting tectonic plates. Clifton Samuels as Walter Goldstein, a Hollywood producer, enters late in the play and is quite unforgettable. His lights up the theater like he is lit from within by a halogen lamp. He is so over the top you want to name a planet after him. Becky Barta has the smallest part as Margret Pilsner, but she is like an essential oil –you only need a drop for it to permeate the entire room. It’s like she owns the stage and is letting the others visit.
Of course the show stealer is the far from lifeless corpse, Mickey Blake, played by Robert Tunstall. He is thrown about the stage like a rag-doll at the end of a temper tantrum throwing two-year-old. And he never flinches. He is flung about, thrown over and manhandled and remains deadpan. One of the shows highlights is the corpse choreography by Brandon Mason (Assistant Director/Choreographer) where the dead body is danced about like showgirl in vaudeville act. It’s a show stopper.
Ashleigh Poteat has captured the era with her stunning costume designs. She makes everyone look gorgeous and gallant. Aaron Porter has designed both the (divinely) garish set and lights, that house and frame this theatrical gem perfectly.
This is a Fun House and Film Production and they have injected their brand of infectious optimism into the off Broadway maelstrom and left me laughing out loud all the way home on the Q train.
Running time 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission
STIFF plays through February 21- March 3, 2018 at The Barrow Group Main Stage Theatre. 312 West 36th, New York, NY
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