Swimming Upstream – Gay City News

Swimming Upstream

Revisiting American mythologies, for better or worse

“Huck and Holden,” the new play down at the Cherry Lane Studio, is not going to set the world on fire. Yet it is an engaging play enlivened by an absolutely charming and talented cast that delivers a fun evening. Rajiv Joseph’s five-character play about two young people at college and the spirits that visit them is a quasi-absurdist exploration of the desire to define oneself as part of the wider culture.

The plot concerns a young Indian student, Navin, who has come to America to attend college. Though an engineering major, he is required to write a paper on Huckleberry Finn and Holden Caulfield and along the way meets Michelle, an African-American voice major who works in the library. Navin struggles to fit into America just as the literary archetypes the script evokes struggle to fit into theirs. He falls in love, sort of, with Michelle, is visited by a Sikh version of Holden, rescues Michelle from a misogynistic boyfriend, and does battle with the goddess Cali. It is amusing, and though an immature playwriting effort, the inherent innocence and sweetness of the effort make it largely irresistible.

Nick Choski does a wonderful job as Navin, a boy/man adrift in the collegiate world of sexual freedom and frankness unknown in his native India. He is an actor we’re likely to see much more of and is very funny, managing to be geeky awkward and innocently sexy all at the same time. No wonder Michelle is charmed by him—after the arrogance of her jock boyfriend—and takes great delight in introducing him to the Kama Sutra. Cherise Boothe is lovely in the role, another balancing act that captures the vague discomfort and emerging identity of a college student trying to figure out who she is.

Arjun Gupta as the ghost of Holden is good; it’s fun to see the ur-preppy interpreted as a Sikh. Nilaja Sun is fun as Cali, particularly with a costume of the four-armed goddess and the necklace of doll heads she swings around.

The direction by Giovanna Sardelli does justice to the script and emphasizes the comedy, though sometimes at the expense of what might be more poignant moments.

This is a classic fish-out-of-water formula, which in lesser hands might wear thin. However, if you’re willing to stay with it, you’ll be entertained—and perhaps remember some of your college antics as well, for better or worse.

One word that is seldom used to describe the great comedian Lenny Bruce is boring. So it’s a real shame that “Lenny Bruce… In His Own Words” is as dull as it is. Joan Worth and Alan Sacks have cobbled together elements of Bruce’s routines from the ‘50s and ‘60s to create a play that supposedly takes us inside the great comedian as he fought for his First Amendment right to free speech.

Certainly some of the things Bruce had to say—his political critique, his barbs against organized religion, and his spoofs of the foibles of different ethnic groups—set the standard for contemporary comedy. But as incisive as they are—and eerily prescient of the world 40 years later—simply reiterating Bruce’s lines seems like comedy we’ve now all heard before. What’s missing from this play is a context for understanding the man within his time. The gimmick of reprising words doesn’t really make for good theater. There’s nothing contemporary, human, or even compelling all this; it seems distant—a piece of history like the animatronic Abe Lincoln recently unveiled in Springfield, Illinois. We may be amazed by the words and awed by the technique, but left cold. The authors missed the opportunity to use theater to engage a dialogue about what’s happening today, instead opting for something mechanical when they could have been as provocative and challenging as Bruce was.

Jason Fisher is technically adroit in the role of Lenny Bruce. He has the vocal patterns down, though I only know them only from recordings, and he has the slouch that are familiar from pictures of Bruce. What’s missing is the sense of tragedy or real human depth in the fact that Bruce was driven to tell the truth as he saw it, even as it destroyed him. We are never able to make the link to the hypocrisy of government today that continues to pose real challenges to free speech.

Impressions are fun, but they can’t sustain an evening. Technique is impressive, but without theater, it’s hollow. Lenny Bruce, I imagine, would never have played it this safe.



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