I did not expect much from Cake and Plays…But Without the Cake. There were multiple technical mishaps throughout the first of the three cake-less plays by Jono Hustis. But more importantly, that first play, Cow and Shakespeare, had very few redeeming qualities. Featuring Michael Hartney as a Shakespeare in half-modern, half-Elizabethan dress stealing all of his plays from a mostly human, inconsistently depicted cow (Michael Micalizzi), Cow and Shakespeare is a cross between a half-assed spoof of the Shakespeare authorship debate and a marginal account of writer’s block. The play would have better served as merely an exercise for Hustis to break out of a creative slump than as something worth a full production.
In the final two plays, however, Hustis began to show his genuine talent and promise as a playwright. The first, Monsoons, is a stark, blackly comedic vignette about a failed first date that, despite being frequently hilarious, never lets its audience laugh too long. Monsoons succeeds exactly where Cow and Shakespeare fails. It takes a solitary theme—what should and should not be said when making a first impression—and distorts it in a manner wholly digestible for the playwright, cast, and audience alike. Monsoons is the kind of play you could teach classes with, and any teacher who uses this play would be a damn good one in my book.
The final and longest play, In the Name of Bob, is a finely executed one-act about a beleaguered woman who meets her guardian angel. The only play of the three to offer fully fleshed-out characters, it has two excellent ones in Alicia and Marvin, played with remarkable realism by Darcy Fowler and Andy Gershenzon even as their performances frequently touch the absurd. Gershenzon in particular stands out as the oddball, nearly spastic guardian angel Marvin. Marvin’s unpredictability is a constant toy for Gershenzon and director Daniel Horrigan to play with, until Hustis uses the characterization for a brilliant punch line ending. Fowler also shines as a woman disinclined to talk to any stranger, let alone one claiming to be her guardian angel, and who sinks into an aloof-but-needy persona rather gracefully.
In the Name of Bob doesn’t stray too far out of the ordinary for a fallen guardian angel story (the kind we see on film much more frequently than on the stage). It also has an extremely unfortunate title. But what In the Name of Bob lacks in ingenuity, it makes up in charm and execution.
The Grecian Formula, by Carter Anne McGowan, is much more likely than most Fringe Festival shows to come out of the Fringe with a larger production waiting. It’s got theatrical in-jokes seeping out of its pores at every moment. It had the audience roaring, and played with theatrical themes quite poignantly. Just about every stage convention was lambasted, from the 11 o’clock number to the play-within-the-play (or even play-within-the-play-within-the-play). McGowan clearly has a deep knowledge of theatrical conventions and the absurdity of the producer’s side of the process, and knows which buttons to push to get the most laughs.
As the play progresses, however, the theatrical in-jokes become less and less novel and increasingly tiresome. McGowan tries to work in a plot through the jokes, a poorly fleshed-out story of a slave, Alidocious (Todd Lawson), seeking freedom for his daughter Iphigenia (Elena Dones) from the rhapsode Thespiotis (Kevin Carolan). In a lull in his career, and bemoaning how writing and papyrus has destroyed the young’s attention span (nice touch), Thespiotis is commissioned by the tyrant Peisistratus (Anthony Cochrane, frequently called “Pissistratus”). With no writing skill himself, Thespiotis assigns the task to his slave, who alternately writes too happy or too depressed, depending on Peisistratus’ mood.
What’s more upsetting than the uninspiring plot is the inconsistency and shallowness of McGowan’s use of satire. She obvious grasps the nuances of classical theater, modern dramatic theory, and theater’s contemporary realities. But rather than turning her knowledge into a whole work that really gets contemporary theater’s goat, she comes up with something more closely resembling Forbidden Broadway or, worse, a Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer-level shallow spoof. The Grecian Formula uses lazy, name-dropping references instead of going deeper for satire, and the result is something less fun, meaner, and more stupid and tasteless. It's what Epic Movie would be like as a play. McGowan clearly knows the theater like the back of her hand, but without a more disciplined satire, the play simply feels redundant rather than loving. Her frequent interjection of self-mockery is not an acceptable substitute.
Cake and Plays…But Without the Cake by Jono Hustis. Directed by Daniel Horrigan. Starring Darcy Fowler (Alicia), Andy Gershenzon (Marvin), Michael Hartney (William), Michael Micalizzi (Cow/Doug), Craig Mungavin (Jack), and Morgan Lindsey Tachco (Theresa). Through August 24 at the Gene Frankel Theater (24 Bond Street). Tickets can be purchased at www.smarttix.com.
The Grecian Formula by Carter Anne McGowan. Directed by Mary Jo Lodge. Starring Jason Rosoff (The Narrator), Anthony Cochrane (Peisistratus), Brian Marino (Sock), Jason Pintar (Bushkin), Ramona Floyd (Phye), Nick Sullivan (Ikon), Kevin Caroan (Thespiotis), Rich Affannato (Tragelistis), Todd Lawson (Alidocious), Jolly Abraham (Caligone), Julie Tokarcik (Clytemnestra), Elena Dones (Iphigenia), Robert Hooghkirk (Oeddy), and Holly Sansom (Laura). Remaining performances occur on August 16 at 7:30 p.m. and August 17 at noon at 45 Bleecker Street. Tickets can be purchased at www.fringenyc.org