The Fringe offerings I encountered on Tuesday the 24th both provided unique displays of their authors’ developments and accomplishments as writers. First up was Wanton Displays of a Affection, an evening of three short plays by Zach Smilovitz that were written while the author was still a student at the University of Michigan. My second production of the evening was Tiny Geniuses by Emily Feldman, a show that chronicles the high jinks of a hectic first grade class, presented by Bourbon Barrel Ensemble.
Both offered insight into the authors’ view of the world. And, though both productions are by young writers, Tiny Geniuses emerged as simultaneously the silliest and most mature of the two. Here’s what I thought of them both.
Wanton Displays of Affection
by Zach Smilovitz, directed by Yael Kiken, Zach Smilovitz, and Liam White
The Cherry Pit
It was with dismay that I encountered Wanton Displays of Affection, a scattered evening of short plays by Zach Smilovitz, which seemed, from its clever title, as if it would promise an irresistibly bitter ironic edge. Alas, the three one-act plays included here seem devoid of any real inspiration.
Written while Smilovitz was still studying at the University of Michigan, each of the evening’s three stories feels very much like student work. There’s nothing embarrassingly bad on display here, but Smilovitz has a lot of work to do before his work is ready for mass consumption.
The first play of the evening, Default Swap, is about two suicidal businessmen fighting over a woman. The second play, Mr. and Mrs. Aronovitz Go to the Doctor, is about an exceptionally strange diagnosis Mr. Aronovitz receives regarding his Jewishness. The third, The Bodies, focuses on a group of young people worried that a friend may have overdosed on drugs.
There’s no standout acting here, though everyone is perfectly fine. The actors occasionally seem assigned to their roles arbitrarily rather than according to their types and abilities, but each makes the most of the material he or she is given.
The Bodies strikes me as the most mature of the three plays in the evening. It’s an appropriate way to end the evening, leaving one wishing that the other two plays in the trio were on par. It’s when the stakes are highest that the biggest rewards are reaped. Where jokes trump drama in the first two pieces, The Bodies displays Smilovitz’s potential to write about something deeper, even when he’s writing in the comedic mode.
Though these three plays – which seemed, really, more like sketches – failed to impress me, I could see during some moments the potential for Smilovitz to find something real to say. Let’s hope, if he returns to the Fringe in subsequent years, that playwright Zach Smilovitz finds his footing.
Bottom Line: SKIP IT
Remaining Shows: WED 25 @ 6:30
by Emily Feldman, directed by Jay Briggs
HERE Mainstage Theater
In Bourbon Barrel Ensemble’s first production, Tiny Geniuses, it’s difficult sometimes to tell the adults apart from the children. Focusing on a “gifted” first grade class at Gateway Elemtary School that’s welcoming a brand new teacher, Miss Applebaum, the play utilizes adult actors in both child and adult roles in several instances, creating a fascinating hybrid between comedy and drama, exploring childhood situations as well as adult ones.
The play gets off to a rollicking starts as we’re introduced to the class – controlling girl-diva Gabrielle (Amanda Sox), nerdy Jimmy (David Darrow), attention-hog Nancy (Brett Ashley Robinson), and tomboy Bo (Gwen Ellis). As Miss Finola Applebaum (Alexis Bronkovic) prepares to become their new teacher, she’s visited by Principal Pineapple, a mentally unstable lesbian with control issues who befriends Finola, all the while struggling to maintain influence over her school.
The trouble comes when young Gabrielle begins ruling the playground. She collects wood chips from her fellow classmates and then rides on their backs, in some cases causing them bodily harm. When Gabrielle’s parents (played by Robinson and Darrow in a smart instance of doubling) are told about their daughter’s delinquency (and illiteracy), it’s their reaction that shapes the remainder of the play.
Daddy, who’s nonplussed by his wife’s insistence that Miss Applebaum be fired, begins to hit on his daughter’s teacher, chalking it up to an ardent interest in his daughter’s progress. And Mommy, summoned to the school for a conference, accuses Finola of calling Gabrielle fat and calls for her dismissal. Fortunately, after some meddling, Finola is allowed to stay; she’s also allowed to present the spelling bee that she’s been organizing, much to Gabrielle’s parents’ dismay (remember – their daughter is illiterate). The ultimate question to be answered is, Can Miss Applebaum’s attempts to impart core information to her students counterbalance the entitlement their parents feel?
The cast is uniformly excellent. Gwen Ellis as quirky Principal Pineapple, has fantastic comic timing, particularly in scenes with her “companion,” a teddy bear in whom she confides. As Miss Applebaum, Alexis Bronkovic, has just the right wide-eyed innocence to portray a first grade teacher, undercut with the worldly wisdom of one who hopes – but isn’t sure – that she can make a difference.
To be certain, Tiny Geniuses, is a joy to behold from start to finish. It’s a silly piece but one with some serious things to say. A particularly rousing spelling bee scene toward the end of the play reminds us of the joys of witnessing a fine comedic ensemble, and there are plenty of other scenes throughout to highlight the unique talents of the merry band of actors assembled.
Playwright Emily Feldman has crafted a play that makes ample, quirky use of language, surprising us at each twist and turn with unexpected usages. Feldman wisely uses the lessons imparted to children as a way of shedding light on adult issues, a difficult balance to maintain but one that she deftly maintains. Considering the success of Barrel Ensemble’s inaugural production, I, for one, am excited to see what this promising company will create next.
Bottom Line: SEE IT
Remaining Shows: None remaining.
For more information about the New York International Fringe Festival, visit fringenyc.org.