Fringe Binge

One critic’s Baedeker to what’s a must, what’s just OK, and what to avoid

Armed with a good map of Lower Manhattan and blessed with a fairly flexible schedule, it’s amazing how much theater one can cram into a few days at the Fringe Festival. The ninth annual event, which winds down this weekend, now boasts more than 180 different performances and is the largest festival of its type in North America.

The Fringe this year seemed more organized than ever, and if one takes away any single impression, it is that the level of performers assembled for this event is mind-boggling. Even in less than perfect shows—and a couple of clunkers—the actors consistently work their hearts out, often enlivening what might otherwise be disasters. If you are still trying to decide what Fringing you’d like to do in the remaining few days, here are my reactions, conveniently arranged in three categories.

All shows are $15; call 212-279-4498 or visit fringenyc.org.

Run Out And See…

Flea Theater (upstairs)

41 White Street, btwn.

Church St. & Broadway

Aug. 28, 12:15 p.m.

This play needs some tightening and focusing, but the honest discussion of what marriage means, what makes relationships work, and what motivates us in the context of a relationship is fascinating. At times graphic to the point of causing discomfort, this is ultimately a play about facing and hopefully exorcising one’s demons. It’s also about how far one can or will go to save a relationship. Set in the middle of an art installation in the high desert of New Mexico, the story centers on a gay couple trying to define itself in terms of marriage, monogamy, love, and its place in the culture. The show includes wonderful performances by H. Clark, Cory Grant, Bekka Lindström, and Ron McClary. This is the richest and most emotionally daring of the gay-themed plays that I saw this year.

The Flea Theater (upstairs)

41 White Street, btwn.

Church St. & Broadway

Aug. 25 9 p.m.;

Aug. 26 1:45 p.m., 6 p.m.

Cynthia Silver learned the hard way, as many of us do, that the operating strategy of tabloid journalism is “charm and betray.” Who wouldn’t fall for the attention of people who seem interested in you? And it’s to Silver’s credit that she believed the lies she was told. It’s also hard to blame her for wanting to be featured in a documentary on New York weddings, even if it seems a bit egotistical. But why not? Right? Ah, but beware the editing room and the hidden agenda. Silver was turned into a “Bridezilla” for a show on Fox TV and rendered a laughing stock. Fortunately for us, this still hopeful, charming, and very, very funny young woman had the gumption to turn the tables and expose the seamy cynicism of the “reality TV” business. Never descending to the TV producers’ level of nastiness and openly admitting her own flaws, she created a wry, sweet piece that is the best one-person show I saw.

GOD’S WAITING ROOM

Performance Space 122 (downstairs)

150 First Ave. at Ninth St.

Aug. 25 p.m.; Aug. 28 noon

This show scores for theatricality, a wonderful script by Ashlin Halfnight, and a production that is never anything less than fascinating. Four people trapped in purgatory relive their final moments again and again as they seek to move on. The audience becomes other souls who have just arrived in limbo thanks to a plane crash and must watch the endless recycling of the characters’ tales in search of resolution that never arrives. The playwright says it’s inspired by Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita,” but there is a heavy influence of Sartre in the absurdist tale as well. Tight and fast-paced, the show is just an hour long, and yet is rich in detail, gaining power from its economy thanks to the direction by Alexis Poledouris. The cast—Jeffrey Clarke, Shelley Gershoni, Rebecca Lingafelter, and Elena Mulroney—is superlative, each giving precise and intelligent performances while working together beautifully as an ensemble.

Run By If You Have Time…

THE MISS EDUCATION OF JENNA BUS

The Village Theatre

158 Bleecker St. near Thompson St.

Aug. 25 7:15 p.m., Aug. 26 2 p.m.

This piece will probably surface in other forms—like on TV—relatively soon. Melissa Rauch plays the president’s daughter as a raucous party girl about to enter the real world as a teacher. The satire is well done as Miss Bush is presented as brainless and her pathological self-involvement and divorce from reality presented as something she clearly learned from Daddy. Along the way, we learn that such things as “No Child Left Behind” came from a selfish tirade by Jenna. Rauch is delightful in the part with an infectious presence and perfect comic timing. Somehow she makes the First Family and all its hangers-on seem as venal and moronic as the First Twin. Ironically, this is the only show where the ushers will actively campaign for your vote for the Fringe Award. One wonders if they’ll find a way to fix that vote, which would truly be art imitating life.

FLEET WEEK

Lucille Lortel Theatre

121 Christopher St. at Bedford St.

Aug. 26 4:15 p.m.

If you can make it through the first act, which is clumsy and amateurish, you’re in for a real treat. This little musical has huge potential, once it finds its heart and its political footing. It’s got the silly plot of a classic MGM musical as four sailors go ashore for Fleet Week, and find that the loves of their lives were under their noses all the time, even as they foil a terrorist plot and save the city. The authors have a political agenda, but it’s deftly handled, and while there are only a few tunes you’ll hum on the way out, you’ll sure be thinking about our political priorities in this country. The company is, for the most part, delightful, especially Christopher Guilmet and Brian Golub as two of the sailors and Rob Maitner as the ship’s chaplain. It’s goofy, good fun.

THE IRISH CURSE

Linhart Theatre at 440 Studios

440 Lafayette St., below

Astor Pl., third fl.

Aug. 25 4:30 p.m.

Martin Casella’s comedy is about five men who gather in a kind of 12-step program to discuss the size of their equipment—in this case the “Irish Curse,” which purportedly leaves men with downsized peters, shall we say. It’s a bittersweet comedy that addresses a taboo subject with warmth and honesty, balancing anger and acceptance in approaching a condition that, particularly in our all-porn culture, can be debilitating. The script could use some trimming, but director Matt Lenz keeps the action moving, with excellent performances from Howard Kaye, Eddie Kobrich, Brian Leahy, William McCauley, and especially Roderick Hill.

THE MONSTER UNDER THE BED DRANK MY VODKA

The Players Loft

115 MacDougal St. at Minetta Pl.

Aug. 25 7 p.m.; Aug. 27 12:15 p.m.

Essentially, this is a typically predictable drunk-ologue from Lisa David Dean, telling the story of how addictions messed up her life, and how she found sobriety. Like many such pieces, the horrible situations she got herself into are what create the comedy. Dean is a skilled performer, but as entertaining as it is, the piece suffers from feeling slick and distant—as though this story has been told so many times that it has become rote, and that’s too bad. There is tremendous potential here if Dean could find a way to make the past feel present.

Run the Other Way…

It’s too late for me on these three, but you are encouraged to save yourself. Ironically, these are all shows that had a lot of buzz at the start of the festival, but the anticipation overshadowed the actual event—by a lot.

THE MAYOR WHO WOULD BE SONDHEIM

Mazer Theatre

197 East Broadway at Jefferson St.

Aug. 28 noon

A moronic and unbelievable concept runs headlong into a playwright who has tried to put three different plays on the stage. Is this a comedy? Mid-century realism a la Arthur Miller? Or a political drama? No one knows for sure. What is clear is that the lack of structure, lame dialogue, and shifting of dramatic intent add up to two-plus hours of tedium. Still, actors Nina Daniels, Scott Giguere, and Craig Anthony Grant are wonderful. I’ll hope to see them in something better soon.

EXTRA VIRGIN

The Players Loft

115 MacDougal St. at Minetta Pl.

Aug. 26 6:15 p.m.; Aug. 27 9 p.m.

Oh, no. Another high school revenge sex tragedy. Howard Walters’ insufferably dull play has all the intrigue of a therapy session. The hackneyed relationship issues, unresolved animosities, and burden of the past have never seemed more trite and insubstantial. The dialogue is as implausible as the plot, and the “I was so drunk I forget” tactic for excusing gay rape has never seemed so inexcusably lazy and manipulative.

SEX WITH JAKE GYLLENHAAL

13th Street Repertory Company

50 W. 13th St.

Aug. 27 10 p.m.

What could possibly be worse than an incoherent, superficial, and badly written one-act play? How about seven of them strung together in one excruciating 90 minutes? Anthony Giunta has put together seven character studies and boldly called it an evening. Only one of the pieces seems almost finished, in that we understand who the characters are, why they’re there, and what their motivations are.

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