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Tedious Tidbits

Bite-size but toothless, plays like "Freedomland" and "The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told" prove that good things don't always come in small packages.

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There are what I would call unnecessary plays. They come in varying degrees of awfulness, but what they have in common is contrivance instead of urgency, and greed and ambition for their motives. Such works account for more than 80 percent of what is around, and intelligent persons instinctively avoid them, whereas benighted ones applaud them and cheer themselves hoarse. Unless you are an expert confectioner à la Ayckbourn or Neil Simon, you had better desist: Worthy stuff gets written from a sacred compulsion to communicate something that must be expressed. Anything else fails -- perhaps not financially, but certainly artistically.

I have the unenviable task of reviewing four such unnecessary plays. Freedomland, by Amy Freed, is a madcap farce (type You Can't Take It With You) wherein a number of weirdos, some of them members of a hypereccentric family, and their guests and victims have at one another in sundry outrageous ways. Miss Freed has come up with Noah Underfinger (love that name!), a retired college professor in his upstate New York house and galloping dotage. His first wife has left him to become a hobo (better than being bored to death); his current one, Claude, is a demented therapist who wears an unseen bondage harness and puts a young man in the stocks to massage and seduce him.

The elder daughter, Sig, is a successful painter of hobo clowns (get the Freudian connection?), and is otherwise ludicrously neurotic. Polly, the younger, is a perpetual graduate student writing a thesis on the women in the Iliad, and is ludicrously neurotic in every way. Seth, their brother, is a crazy blowhard of the back-to-the-earth persuasion, living rurally and exiguously with his current girlfriend, Lori, a dimwitted earth child pregnant by her former, abusive husband. Surely the violent loudmouth Seth, who likes to blow up things, e.g. a Quaker meeting house, treats her no better. Sig, in turn, has brought along Titus, a sexually blocked, namby-pamby young art-magazine editor, working on an in-depth interview with Sig but a pushover for Claude's middle-aged lust. (Note that both these women have masculine names.)

Miss Freed spills these stick figures onto the stage, gives them bizarre language and tics, and lets them get entangled with one another until they trip themselves, or the others, up. There are a few funny lines, but absolutely no point and assuredly no play. The title derives from an amusement park where the family used to have fun. At the play's end, they reminisce about it raptly in a derivative piece of facile nostalgia that falls even flatter than the rest.

To blame also is Howard Shalwitz's shallow direction, which lets the actors flounder, whether, like Veanne Cox and Dakin Matthews, they could do better, or, like Robin Strasser, Heather Goldenhersh, and Jeffrey Donovan, they deserve what they get. Loy Arcenas's clever décor and Christopher Akerlind's apt lighting can do little for Freedomland, whose very title seems to reflect Miss Freed's narcissism.

Worse yet is Paul Rudnick's The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, which must have begun as a smartass idea a smarter person would have promptly dropped. Rudnick has some facility with one-liners, which by now, however, seems to be waning. Here he conceived of an Eden in which God created Adam and Steve, a homosexual couple, and a lesbian one, Jane and Mabel. Our putative forebears, they pop up elsewhere in history, to land, in Act Two, in the Village.

The immediate flaw is that these strictly paired couples do not intercopulate, and so cannot bear offspring. Undaunted, Rudnick has them cavort through the well-populated ages, without getting a play out of this, or, since the first and second acts have little to do with each other, a pair of decent short plays. Fabulous falls apart as one play, and flounders as two. In Jeffrey, Rudnick managed to stretch better one-liners into something of a play; here the concoction, even bit by bit -- or bite by bite -- won't go down: You can doze pleasantly and long between the few gags that come off. Even worse are the serious bits, as when one lesbian gets pregnant by, of course, artificial insemination -- why would insemination differ from everything else in the play?

Alan Tudyk and Juan Carlos Hernandez do well, sometimes fully naked, in the leads; Lisa Kron, as a wheelchair-bound lesbian rabbi, and Peter Bartlett, as a flagrantly swishy pharaoh, also have their moments. The problem is not that the play is aimed almost exclusively at homosexuals, but that it is aimed at audiences, gay and straight, of the lowest common denominator.

Out of Spread Eagle, a gifted playwright could perhaps have made a worthwhile play. George Rose was a fine British-born Broadway actor who, in his second home in the Dominican Republic, adopted his young male Hispanic lover, intending to make him his heir. When his affection shifted to a younger boy, the older one and his father, afraid of losing the inheritance, brutally murdered Rose. This sad and shattering story should not have fallen into the hands of Jim Luigs, whose only previous achievement is a horrendously unfunny musical parody of Wagner, Das Barbecü.

Even so, Toby Arundel, as Rose is less sweetly named here, retains some interest, especially as portrayed by that excellent and most humane actor Brian Murray. There is good work also from Joe Quintero, as the younger boy in whom Toby nurtures a genuine acting talent; the others have scant chance to shine. This is especially true of the two major supporting parts, that of a bitchy, effete ex-lover of Toby's, and that of an actress, his only genuine comrade. Superficially written, they are beyond Graeme Malcolm's and Patricia Kilgarriff's, or anyone's, ministrations. I hope that the memory of George Rose will not be undeservedly trivialized by Spread Eagle, and that Brian Murray will soon be able to spread his aquiline pinions and soar to the greater heights he amply deserves.

The ultimate unnecessary, indeed offensive, play was "Hope" Is the Thing With Feathers, an unutterably vacuous and attitudinizing piece of claptrap. For sinking this low, the Drama Dept. should be renamed Drama Depth. The author, Frank Pugliese, made it on an equally wretched piece, Aven'U Boys (note the title!), which received a glowing review from a powerful former drama critic whose close friend was foolish enough to produce it. (It failed anyway.) Hope, a grandiloquently verbose exercise in futility, drove me out of the theater after 45 minutes. People who think this is lèse majesté should try to watch such a thing with feathers sometime.


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