Where Hype Meets Hope

Addict, murdered princess, Greek AIDS warrior help Fringe defy expectations

The annual New York Fringe Festival is in full swing, and half the fun is discovering which shows live up to the hype, and which are beyond hope.

With the edgy theatrical extravaganza increasing in selectivity every year—only one out of four shows that applied made the cut in 2004—expectations are rising as well. Here’s how three of the more heavily touted shows fared.

When openly gay Henry Covery sat down to write “The First Step,” his searingly graphic bio-play about his all-consuming sex addiction, he was faced with a dilemma—how to craft a comedy about a weighty taboo subject without glorifying the taboo?

Thanks in part to expert direction by Tony nominee Michael Leeds (“Swinging on a Star”) and a fine cast, this labor of love adroitly walks the line between farce and fact, wavering briefly just once or twice.

The play opens with the model-gorgeous Joe Blow (played with beguiling hauteur by Jeff Meacham) intoning random thoughts to the audience with all the blasé smugness of a game show host. Oh yeah… there’s a lithe young man on his knees servicing him, but Joe barely reacts, save for a brief, robotic release.

The voracious Joe Blow claims to have slept with thousands of men, but he literally only slept with seven—with one foot on the floor. He delights in showing the audience, voyeurs that we are, how his addiction isn’t merely a disease, it’s a form of insanity.

We observe, in lip-smacking detail, highlights from his sordid sexual resumé, like his first time in a department store rest room (“Rest room…what a misnomer!” says Joe) and a blowjob in a toy aisle at the old Woolworth’s in Chelsea. Not to mention flashbacks to darkly charged tickle-fights and “crossing swords” at the toilet with his Dad.

Joe likens the Internet to the sex addict’s Home Shopping Network. “Just log on and act out,” he advises.

Despite a raft of sexual situations, any eroticism that begins to stir is held in check by Joe’s self-deprecation. Clearly he’s on autopilot heading for disaster, illustrating Covery’s sobering “don’t end up like me” lesson.

The sexy publicity photo of a hirsute hunk, full-on naked atop a big brass bed, is misleading. In this production there is no full nudity and no set to speak of (mostly just a few black crates).

“The First Step” is energized by various creative flourishes. There’s a mock “Dating Game” that contrasts answers among four male types—straight, straight addict, gay, gay addict (that’s Joe, who offers the most outrageous responses). A master of sarcasm, Joe gives a tearful acceptance speech, clutching a Sexual Compulsives Anonymous pamphlet like an Oscar, thanking the multitudes that helped make his plight possible. “Addiction is such a collaborative effort!” he gushes.

Joe discovers that recovery is a team effort as well.

The liveliest scene is a psuedo-rap (arranged by songmeister John Forster) where cast members flash signs forming a litany of screen name permutations actually used in Internet M4M sex rooms (e.g., ChelseaMuscleKid). Surely at least one audience member was chagrined, if not thrilled, to see his own handle mentioned.

Timothy Connell, Jason Currie, Frederick Hamilton and Ali Anderson gamely act various sex addict roles but never upstage the star addict. As engaging as Meacham is, though, I can’t help but wonder if the show would be more forceful if Joe Blow were portrayed by an average-looking Joe.

Haunting the production are strains of the 1930 Gershwin classic, “Embraceable You.” Let’s just say that after seeing “The First Step,” the lyrics “Come to Papa do” will never be the same.

Remaining performances of “The First Step” are Tuesday, August 24 at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, August 26 at 5 p.m. and Sunday, August 29 at 4:45 p.m.

Die, Die, Diana: A Musical!

Another show that takes on a distressing subject and makes no apologies in going for the comedic jugular is “Die, Die, Diana: A Musical!”

The deliriously barbed satire, asserting that Princess Diana’s fatal car wreck was no accident, created a sensation during its original run at San Jose State University in California. In fact, the show was so incendiary it was deemed royally seditious, forever banned from being staged in Britain.

Was something lost in translation?

Admittedly on paper, and even in the flesh, the show should be a hoot. Members of the sizable cast boast impressive theater, film and TV credits. Ashley Wren Collins is glorious as the lovely, tortured Diana. Vinnie Penna portrays her coke-sniffing playboy beau Dodi with greasy panache. Other hilarious standouts include R. Paul Hamilton in drag as the supercilious Queen Mum, Jackie Kamm as Prince William and Harry (whom she plays as hand puppets) and Beth Ann Leone as the crafty Camilla Parker-Bowles.

The 11 original songs by composer Jef Labes (who tickled the ivories in the Van Morrison classic “Moondance”) are tuneful enough—I even heard an audience member sing the title anthem as we left the theater. There’s a full band onstage, directed by keyboardist Ayhan Sahi.

And the dialogue offers plenty of zingers. When discussing threats to the monarchy, the witchy Queen Mum says to the flask-swigging Queen Elizabeth, “Won’t your crown look great with a little Nike swoosh!”

Yet sadly, all these marvelous theatrical building blocks have collapsed in a jumble. Somewhere buried in all this mess is a “Urinetown”-like hit struggling to break free. Who is to blame?

The enormous Schimmel Center at Pace University, hailed as one of the new state-of-the-art venues for FringeNYC this year, has betrayed the production. The spare, virtually set-less show simply cannot sustain itself in such a vast area. There’s also an expansive no-man’s land separating the audience from the stage, where much of the comedic energy dissipates into thin air.

The poor actors, who must also contend with a faulty sound system (which reportedly failed in other performances), work full throttle to connect to baffled theatergoers, to no avail. Accents come and go as unpredictably as the power to their head microphones.

Surely directors Heather, Jerry and Kelly McAllister could have made adjustments to fit the venue (at the very least, why not close the curtains a few feet to focus the action?).

Writers Scott Sublett and Jef Labes must also share the blame. The mighty thin book assumes viewers recall the story surrounding Diana’s untimely demise in 1997. Consisting mostly of clever vignettes, the show offers little in the way of dramatic or emotional growth, so characters are reduced to wacky caricatures we can laugh at. But who cares?

Remaining performances of “Die, Die, Diana: A Musical” are Thursday, August 19 at 7:15 p.m., Saturday, August 21 at 10:45 p.m. and Friday, August 27 at 10:45 p.m.

Odysseus Died from AIDS

Nobody caring is not a problem in the case of “Odysseus Died from AIDS,” a modest fantasia written, directed and produced by Steven Svoboda that explores tragic terrain, injecting humor sparingly without undercutting the pathos. Think Larry Kramer’s “Normal Heart” meets NBC’s “Scrubs.”

Frankly, there were indicators that this show, courtesy of the fledging Fresco Productions and the University of Miami, might falter. As it turns out, this is the little play that could.

The production boasts no established names, favoring fresh young neophytes (the program does away with bios).

The convoluted story line is not promising. Elliot (John Bixler), a preppy Mamma’s boy who succumbs to AIDS-related brain lesions, is hospitalized in a ward full of wackos also at death’s door. His doting mother, Margaret (Ariana Shore) keeps a stiff upper lip while she cares for her kind-hearted, heroic son.

Surely we’ve seen these misfits before. There’s Maha (Maha McCain), the dark-skinned, pink velour tracksuit-wearing girl who longs for McDonalds. There’s Nick (Brett Friedmann), the tough-talking, babe-loving bruiser with a chip on his shoulder the size of Brooklyn. Nick is in denial about his illness, and all too fittingly, suffers from CMV and goes blind. And yes, there’s the token black tranny, Resean (Randall Pollard), a soap-opera junkie with a sharp tongue and a heart of gold. The patient closest to death is young Adam (Adam Perabo), the KS-covered waif of a partyboy who, against Mother’s orders, allows Elliot to befriend him.

Nurse Dorothy (Kat Lower) threatens to withhold morphine and Oxycontin to control the inmates when they get rowdy, which is all the time.

As his illness infiltrates, the bookish Elliot, who identifies with the Greek warrior Odysseus, assigns his associates roles in his fantasy epic: Resean is Athena, Nick is the Cyclops monster, his doctor is Zeus. As in the classic legend, Elliot has lost his way and must surmount perilous obstacles to return home.

Yet somehow, magically, it all works. Within a few short scenes, seemingly stock characters reveal surprising depths. And the dialogue crackles. When Nick is doubled over in pain after ingesting a rogue laxative, Maha yelps, “Don’t go all Alien on me!” Even when the play lapses into solemn Homeric fantasy, where each character takes turns as narrator, we get it.

Svoboda keeps the pace brisk, extracting the sweetness from the story without the saccharine. Instead of sickly patients bedridden and debilitated, they appear robust or glowing behind scrims, yet we still perceive their pain, and their fears. We don’t need to see Adam’s KS lesions in order to feel them.

Elliot, against all rules and parental wishes, strives to give his compatriots a taste of glory, called “kleos” by the Greeks, thereby garnering some for himself. Though I won’t reveal if he succeeds, I’m happy to announce that in staging this tender, courageous work, Fresco Productions has achieved no small number of kleos for itself.

Remaining performances of “Odysseus Died From AIDS” are Friday, August 20 at 4:15 p.m. and Saturday, August 21 at 9 p.m.

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