My three next offerings at the Fringe were each vastly different in both style and subject matter, some more satisfying than others.
While Menny and Mila used a pop-rock score to explore the concept of mail-order brides, when last we flew captured what it’s like to grow up gay and/or black in Kansas, and West Lethargy brought together modern-day and pioneer characters. Here are my thoughts on each.
Menny and Mila
book, music, and lyrics by Paul Schultz, directed by Sofia L. Geier, choreographed by Kate Scott
Lucille Lortel Theatre
After seeing the Fringe show Cookie, all about a down-and-out New Yorker and his mail-order bride, I was particularly revved to see the musical Menny and Mila, which tackles the same topic in a different mode.
The plot is simple. Menny is a reporter for a tasteless New York tabloid, working as a writer in their newsroom under the supervision of his zany, no-nonsense boss Geri. After he meets beautiful Russian Mila online, he finances her trip to New York and begins a complicated friendship with her.
Menny begins to show Mila around New York; he suggests quite a few joint activities, prompting Mila to feel stifled and controlled. She rebels. Menny experiences a crisis at work. The two learn to live in harmony despite their differences. It’s a fairly paint-by-numbers story.
Various subplots ensue, most of them of little consequence. One of Mila’s workmates (she designs computer programs) has a crush on one of Menny’s workmates. But there’s not enough time for any of the characters to be sufficiently developed, and the music here isn’t memorable enough to excuse the show’s weak plot.
Several cast members stand out. Josh Canfield is charasmatic and in fine voice as Menny, and Amanda Shy possesses a hearty wit as Menny’s boss Geri. Unfortunately, most of the rest of the cast falls flat, including Danielle Heaton, who, as Mila, is the biggest disappointment – reserved and awkward when she should be charismatic, her accent disappearing as soon as she begins to sing.
Menny and Mila disappoints most because its subject matter presents such promise. A musical about mail-order brides could go in so many different, bold directions. This show seems to avoid humor like the plague, and, in taking itself so seriously, loses the sympathy of its audience.
Bottom Line: SKIP IT
Remaining Shows: SAT 28 @ NOON
when last we flew
by Harrison David Rivers, directed by Colette Robert
Lucille Lortel Theatre
In stark contrast with Menny and Mila, Harrison David Rivers’s play when last we flew presented itself in my schedule as a welcome respite from showier, more vapid shows at this year’s Fringe. Rivers’s play, which charts the coming of age of two high school students – Paul, a young gay man discovering himself, and Natalie, an up-and-coming social activist – is full of rich character details and mostly fine acting; it’s one of the best-written shows I’ve seen at this year’s Fringe and is most definitely worth a visit.
Our hero Paul is the kind of kid who locks himself in the bathroom, reading Angels in America on the toilet, dreaming himself into the play. At his essence, he’s crippled by self-doubt, afraid to show his true self to others. By contrast, Natalie is finding her voice in the world. The only black kid in her school, she’s asked to sing the Black National Anthem at St. Anne’s M-L-K-J Day celebration; in an act of empowerment, feeling belittled, she stops mid-song, expressing her outspoken views and violating her private school’s foul language policy. Soon, she finds herself at public school, where she first meets Paul.
As the play proceeds, each character is satisfyingly developed. Paul, a charismatic kid who trades in Bangles and Stephen Sondheim references and seems to be skipping more classes lately than he should be, finds that scenes from Angels in America begin to creep into his everday life. He imagines Fresh, the new kid in school, reenacting the infamous “Central Park Ramble scene” from the play; in another surreal moment in the play, Natalie crashes through his bathroom ceiling after a particularly nasty tornado.
Over the course of the play, Paul struggles to find the balance between what’s real and what’s contained in his favorite book. Meanwhile, his friend Ian begins to take a liking to him. A cross-country runner and math nerd with a penchant for black men, Ian shows Paul that honesty and sacrifice are key not only for a successful relationship but for a successful friendship as well.
Looming large above the proceedings is the central theme of self-empowerment. Before we were humans, the play conjectures, we were birds. And as we live our lives, we struggle to regain the lightness of spirit we once had, laden down by our earthly burdens. As the characters come closer to the “threshold of revelation,” feathers fall from above. An angel, embodied in the form of Ellen McLaughlin (the original Angel in Angels in America on Broadway), provides occasional commentary and steps into various revelatory supporting female roles.
There are several outstanding performances on display here. Jon-Michael Reese is charming and confident as Paul, matched by spunky Rory Lipede as Natalie. In the mother roles of ex-librarian Marian (Paul’s mother) and Priscilla (Natalie’s), Karen Pittman and Tamela Aldridge respectively provide grace and worldly wisdom. Scolding her daughter after her expulsion from St. Anne’s, Priscilla, who had seen private school as a “means to an end” (namely to Ivy League schools), exclaims that what she wants for her daughter is “Options, baby!”
Despite some fantastic performances, I did notice a tendency on the part of the company to treat Mr. Rivers’s fine work with a degree of preciousness that detracts from his accomplishments as a writer. The play is often highly lyrical, and, while that fact should be acknowledged by the company of actors, at times there seems to be a sense of emotional attachment to the text that director Colette Robert would be wise to diffuse.
The challenge our young hero and heroine face, ultimately, is that of being one’s own person. Once Natalie tears up her history book, which she feels largely ignores black history, its pages litter the stage as the rest of the play is performed atop American History, trampling it, but also acknowledging its presence. As each character learns to fly, burdens are shed and wings are, metaphorically, constructed.
On the whole, Rivers writes with a strong rhythmic voice throughout, allowing his characters to move and breathe within the parameters of his slightly off-kilter world with uncommon grace. Blending whimsy and reality works wonders for a play that takes its inspiration from a work that displays a similar juxtaposition of expressionism and realism. There is, however, a danger in choosing a framing character like that of the Angel, and Rivers relies too often on cliche and unnecessary repetition in the play’s rather vague opening monologue and in wistful lines like, “There’s nothing bluer than a Kansas sky, not even the color blue.”
Despite the play’s flaws, it’s got brilliant wings and most definitely warrants a visit during this final weekend at the Fringe. A theatrical flight in and of itself, the play conjectures that there’s only one way for us to change our lives, and that’s to work at being truer to ourselves and others. “Uncap the Elmer’s and start gluing,” says the Angel after our protagonists’ feathers have hit the floor. We’d each of us be wise to take heed.
Bottom Line: MUST SEE
Remaining Shows: FRI 27 @ 9:45, SUN 29 @ 2:30
written and directed by Stephen Kaliski
The Kraine Theatre
In Stephen Kaliski’s new play West Lethargy, some of this same sense of self-empowerment from when last we flew can be found. Focusing on two American pioneers, Ellie and Turner, who’ve settled somewhere between east and west on their way to California, the play focuses on the absurd clash between those in motion and those who prefer to stay put. It’s telling that Turner describes his family’s outlook by exclaiming, “We’re not settlers; we’re pioneers.”
Crashing into these settlers’ lives are a modern-seeming couple, Ringle and Nugget, who bring with them an oversized model of the Empire State Building, around which they model a particularly unique storytelling game. As each of them takes turns narrating, a particular floor on the building is called out, and a story is made up for the others to act out.
This gimmick could provide promise for a stronger playwright, but Kaliski’s writing never seems to find its footing, lost somewhere between the past and the present, those who are staying and those who are going. Particularly telling is the fact that Kaliski takes little care to differentiate the voices of his characters; each of them sounds as if they could be living in modern-day Manhattan (or at least Brooklyn).
Kaliski’s decision to throw very different characters together is commendable, but some grounding in reality is necessary to hold an audience’s attention to a story that’s otherwise so silly.
As regards the play’s cast, Graham Halstead is suitably winsome as Turner, and Mikaela Feely-Lehmann makes a fine Nugget, but otherwise most of the cast seems less than well-suited for this material.
It’s a shame that West Lethargy seems as stuck as its characters between then and now, here and there. What could have been a sly exploration of changing times is instead a rather messy exercise in misguided absurdism. Where the play could have pioneered, it’s settled, and it’s to everyone’s detriment.
Bottom Line: SKIP IT
Remaining Shows: None remaining.
For more information about the New York International Fringe Festival, visit fringenyc.org.