Summer Camp, Summer Love, Summer Doldrums
BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE | Summer camp takes on a whole new meaning with the silly and utterly winning revival of “Pageant,” now at the Davenport Theatre. First seen nearly a quarter of a century ago, this send-up of beauty pageants has men playing the girls as they compete for the sought-after title of Miss Glamouresse, spokeswoman for an eponymous beauty company. From swimsuits, evening gowns, and talent to spokesmodel abilities and handling a “beauty crisis,” the girls go through their paces, egged on by the oleaginous emcee.
The book and lyrics by Frank Kelly and Bill Russell have been slightly updated, but “Pageant” remains a deliciously cheesy pastiche of pageant tropes, obvious puns, and over-the-top performances — no easy feat on the diminutive Davenport stage. Albert Evans’ catchy songs are perfect pageant parodies, as well. This may all seem like a bit much, but that’s exactly what makes it work. Matt Lenz’s witty direction and Shea Sullivan’s choreography straight from Atlantic City keep you laughing from beginning to end.
Of course, none of this would work without the stellar and oh-so-game cast who throw themselves head, heart, and heels into the proceedings. Seth Tucker as Miss West Coast is a Barbie-like airhead whose interpretive dance about reincarnation is hilarious — and just the kind of oddball thing one actually sees in a real pageant. Marty Thomas as Miss Deep South is probably the most believable of the lot as a woman, with many wonderful moments and the most politically incorrect ventriloquist act you’ll ever see. Alex Ringler is big and brassy as Miss Texas.
Return of a classic, a site-specific success, and an overheated mess
Nick Cearley is fantastic as Miss Great Plains, wearing her favorite color, beige. (Yes, that’s the kind of New York-centric slur on the Midwest one can expect. But it’s all in good fun.) Nic Cory as Miss Industrial Northeast is a Latin spitfire with an accordion, and Curtis Wiley as Miss Bible Belt brings down the house with her gospel number about a marriage between God and Mammon.
John Bolton as emcee Frankie Cavalier is delightfully unctuous, particularly in the wonderful parody number celebrating the newly crowned Miss Glamouresse.
Each of the “girls” gets a shot at promoting one of the new beauty products, each more ridiculous than the one before. These talented men know how to play for maximum comic impact. For that, each of them deserves the crown.
“Play/ Date” resists easy categorization. A series of 17 short plays performed in different areas of the Lower East Side bar Fat Baby, it requires the audience to wander around, listen in, get drawn in and choose to see how things turn out or move on to the next. You can’t see all the stories, and I chose to stick with several to the end rather than keep milling about as others did. There were moments of such poignancy that I would have been sorry to miss them. But the artistry of the piece rests in the fragmented and individual way we each experience the world.
If you want to go there, the show offers a very meta, epistemological take on human relationships, but every part of it is entertaining on its face and overall it’s effective even as simply an impressionistic piece about the challenges of meeting the right one in the New York of 2014.
The show was conceived by Blake McCarty and directed and designed by Michael Counts, and while the subject of love and dating is nothing new, the treatments are fresh, the characters original, and the writing consistently engaging. In addition to the live experience, one can also follow the characters on social media before and presumably after. While I did not, I appreciate it as a savvy dramatic device, given how much of dating happens in that environment these days.
I’ve always preferred live people, however, and here that means a 15-member company that is uniformly wonderful. Filling out each of the characters very well, cast members do an amazing job staying focused amidst an ever-changing crowd of people around them. As with “Here Lies Love,” the integration of the audience into the piece heightens engagement and creates a powerful and welcome element of contemporary theatricality. Run down to Fat Baby soon, and maybe take a date.
“The Long Shrift” at Rattlestick, on the other hand, could send you running to a bar to try and forget. This lumbering play collapses under its poor construction, implausible plot, and one-note performances. So much stage tedium has rarely been achieved in a mere 100 minutes.
The story, such as it is, centers on a young man accused of rape as a high school senior who lands in jail, his family fractured. He is released five years later, when his accuser recants, and then another five years after that, she wants closure — or something. It’s at this moment when he just happens to arrive back home in time for their 10th high school reunion. Both he and his erstwhile accuser are compelled to attend, with unfortunate consequences.
Robert Boswell may be an accomplished novelist, but as a playwright he has a long way to go. His exposition is clumsy, his dialogue stilted, and the characters undeveloped. Add to this James Franco’s seemingly disengaged direction, and the piece bogs down irreparably. It doesn’t help that the production is sloppy in the details of its staging or that the play’s “shocking” revelations come out of nowhere. It’s giving no short shrift to “The Long Shrift” to conclude it’s an amateurish mess.
The company does little to repair the damage. Scott Haze, as Richard the jailed young man, has an unfortunate habit of mumbling and offers classroom acting that is shallow and annoyingly self-conscious. Ahna O’Reilly as Beth, the girl who accused Richard and now suffers remorse, is like a light switch — she goes on and off. And when she’s off, it’s like she’s not there. Allie Gallerani as Macy, the student who wants to get the two of them together, gives a generic teen performance both energetic and largely insufferable.
Brian Lally as Henry, Richard’s father, has to negotiate the script’s weaknesses and the illogical changes in his character, so it’s hard to blame him for a flat and unfocused performance. As Richard’s mother, Ally Sheedy simply eschews acting altogether and is just haggard and angry — even in an idiotic dream sequence where she returns from the dead to haunt Henry.
I wish I could say I was doing any better when I was finally sprung from this prison of a play.
PAGEANT: THE MUSICAL | Davenport Theatre, 354 W. 45th St. | Through Sep. 21: Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sun. at 7:30 p.m.; Mon. at 7 p.m. | $49.50, $79.50 at telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | 90 min., no intermission
PLAY/ DATE | Fat Baby, 112 Rivington St., btwn. Essex & Ludlow Sts. | Through Jul. 30: Sun.-Wed. at 8 p.m. | $30-$50 at Playdateny.com or 866-811-4111 | 2 hrs., no intermission
THE LONG SHRIFT | Rattlestick Theater | 224 Waverly Pl., btwn. Perry & W. 11th Sts | through Sep. 23: Sun.-Tue. at 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat. at 3 p.m. | $20 at ovationtix.com or 866-811-4111 | One hr., 20 min., no intermission