For one reason or another, third-wave feminist sexuality has had an awkward transition to the stage. Perhaps that lack of relevant material is what makes The Boy in The Basement by Katherine Heller, a hilarious, smart play about liberal arts college nymphomania, seem so fresh and welcome. With the more traditional Feminazi being performed not too far away at the Players Theater, The Boy In The Basement addresses feminine sexuality in a manner that is always tasteful and often poignantly real. Anyone who’s shared a complicated living arrangement with oversexed early-twentysomethings knows the drill, and this is a play that can bring in young people and repulse the Greatest Generation types. In other words, it’s exactly the kind of theater we should be seeing more of.
The Boy in the Basement purports to be a live action romance novel, the format in which it was originally written. Indeed, the story conforms to all the conventions of the genre, including flowery sexual narration and an intentionally formulaic plot. While the trappings of such a structure may limit the play to Fringe-like venues, there’s a reason Boy was converted into a play. Enacting a story that would otherwise merely be described allows the play to constantly poke fun at romance novel conventions, ultimately giving it more authenticity. The format also lets the audience meet some particularly inspired and perfectly complementary characters that make up this Macalester College student house.
We have the dominant, aggressive Venezuelan Xandra (played by Heller), who uses her foreignness—complete with brilliant broken English dialogue—to her sexual advantage. We also have Aurora (Anna Stumpf), raised as a hippie, with more Eastern sexual leanings (at least in theory). And we have the tough and practical if still lascivious Clarissa (a standout Lynne Rosenberg), who defines her sexuality as “some old fashioned who’s -ya-momma.” All three vie to seduce Lance Speedworth, an extremely attractive and large-packaged intruder into their home (he was stealing to support his dying sister) whom they punish by making him their slave—and not the kind of slave who performs traditional labor, if you get my drift. Contrasting with all the other three is Anna (Meghan Powe), a virgin farm girl from northern Minnesota who, while staying completely oblivious to the intentions of her housemates, falls in mutual love with Lance.
Anna’s sexual awakening is the only part of the script where I feel the writing could have been better, but Heller’s done more than enough to prove herself with The Boy in the Basement. The play is at least partly autobiographical—in the playwright’s note, Heller contends that “her housemates wanted [her] to tell you that none of the stuff in this play actually happened even though it did." It is unclear whether Heller can go beyond an homage to the romance novel, and this may end up being the lone or rare play in a young romance novelist’s career. But with her sharp eye for social and sexual dynamics, there’s a lot of room for growth.
Kansas City Or Along The Way has one quality that almost no other Fringe Festival shows has: it’s a revival, or at least a pseudo-revival. Rising playwright Robert Attenweiler’s Depression-era tale centering around a chance meeting on a southern Ohio train car was first produced as a workshop two years ago, before Attenweiler had much else on his résumé. Structurally, the play recalls Faith Healer and Homebody/Kabul in its use of combining multiple characters' monologues to form an unreliable narration and mask the true plot details until the play’s end.
But what Faith Healer and Homebody/Kabul’s structure had that Kansas City does not are distinct starting and ending points between each monologue. In those plays, as in most great monologue plays, we could spend enough time with a character to fully build relationships with all the characters in the picture. While the constant rotation between the monologues of Joseph (Adam Groves) and Louise (Rebecca Benhayon) certainly makes the situation more confusing, it also prevents the play from building any sort of momentum or sense of attachment. The narrative and chronological relationship between the two monologues is unclear until the climactic meeting scene at the end, which serves as the play’s only moment of dialogue. It’s not surprising that this is the most compelling portion of Kansas City Or Along The Way, as we can finally see Joseph and Louise as human beings, as opposed to intermittent performers.
Part of the blame for the choppy feeling has to go to director Joe Stipek, who fails to provide the show with the precise timing of cues that the script requires. Additionally, while Groves and Benhayon do a respectable job in their performances, they don’t project well, which really kills the show in an acoustically challenged space like the CSV Cultural Center’s Milagro Theater. Groves also plays some Woody Guthrie-inspired songs he co-wrote with Attenweiler, one of which opens the play. The awkwardness of this opening sets the tone for the rest of the awkward timing that follows. The plot itself is pretty interesting, but its redeeming qualities are mostly betrayed by Kansas City’s structure and execution.
The Boy In The Basement by Katherine Heller. Directed by Neil Balaban; set design by Sean Tribble; lighting design by Grant Yeager; original music by Jon Quinn. Starring Hller (Xandra); Nick Fondulis (Catherine DuCheval); Tom Macy (Lance Speedworth); Meghan Powe (Anna); Lynne Rosenberg (Clarissa); Michael Solis (Randy, Felipe); and Anna Stumpf (Aurora) Photo by Luke Ratray. The remaining performances are 8/21 at 11:45 p.m. and 8/23 at 10 p.m. at the Soho Playhouse, 15 Vandam St.
Kansas City Or Along The Way by Robert Attenweiler. Directed by Joe Stipek; set design by Bret Haines; lighting design by Justin Sturges. Starring Rebecca Benhayon (Louise) and Adam Groves (Joseph). The remaining performances are 8/17 at 12:30 p.m., 8/18 at 7:45 p.m., 8/21 at 3:15 p.m. and 8/23 at 9:45 p.m at the Milagro Theater at the CSV Cultural Center, 107 Suffolk Street. Photo by Robert Attenweiler.
Tickets to both shows can be purchased at www.fringenyc.org