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Theater Review (NYC): ‘The Essential Straight & Narrow’ by The Mad Ones

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Stephanie Wright Thompson as Jo in The Mad Ones’ World Premiere of The Essential Straight & Narrow

Stephanie Wright Thompson as Jo in The Mad Ones’ World Premiere of The Essential Straight & Narrow. Photo courtesy of The Mad Ones

A feast of naturalistic acting served on a meta-theatrical dish, The Mad Ones’ collaboratively written The Essential Straight & Narrow glides between two compelling universes of the mind. In a plain hotel room in the 1960s, a broken axle has stranded three members of a touring country band in a small desert town where their internal dramas play out in singer-songwriter Jo’s (Stephanie Wright Thompson) plain-vanilla hotel room.

The last Mad Ones show I saw featured the same primary cast members, similar music, and again a sheen of theatrical self-awareness, but the unreality of that show’s story and tone contrast very sharply with The Essential Straight & Narrow. This consistently sharp gang is also very versatile.

Jo is onstage for pretty much the entire 90 minutes, but when alone, she steps out into the bare, unpainted second half of the stage, ponders a script, then returns to the hotel room to rehearse a scene by herself. How this out-of-the-story sequence relates to the main thread is up to us to guess.

The Mad Ones’ World Premiere of The Essential Straight & Narrow

(L-R): Stephanie Wright Thompson as Jo, Joe Curnutte as Graham, Marc Bovino as Debbie and Michael Dalto as Paul in The Mad Ones’ World Premiere of The Essential Straight & Narrow. Photo courtesy of The Mad Ones

(I came up with a good theory while walking to the subway after the show.)

In any case it creates a secondary draw into a show that’s already compelling, with backstory about a relationship between two band members. There’s a deeply realized local heart-on-sleeve transvestite named Debbie (Marc Bovino) who forcefully befriends the visitors. There’s a Halloween party, shown amid a powerful sequence of passage-of-time blackouts. There are suck-the-air-out moments relating to the band’s career and a beloved cat.

And there is the long, impressive scene in which we get to know the three musicians as they rehearse a song. It stretches on longer than I expected, just as scenes in real life do (although we never get to hear the whole song, and I wish we could, it sounds beautiful). It’s the ability of the three actors playing the musicians – Thompson, Joe Curnutte, and Michael Dalto (and of Bovino and the supporting cast) to continuously inhabit “the moment” that makes this scene and those that follow pulse with the kind of warm life, twisted and difficult just like real life, that it’s so rewarding to see on stage – and that makes the play easily one of the best shows I’ve seen this year.

The New Ohio Theatre presents The Mad Ones production of The Essential Straight & Narrow directed by Lila Neugebauer through June 14.

The Essential Straight & Narrow from The Mad Ones on Vimeo.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.
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