On Stage: The 2009 New York Fringe Festival

For the past two weekends, I’ve been taking advantage of my proximity to Manhattan and checking out shows at the annual New York International Fringe Festival.  One of the biggest theatrical events of the year, Fringe takes over much of downtown Off-Broadway for two weeks.  Performers from all over the world come to try out their new works in front of a New York audience, and for a chance to possibly catch the eye of a producer who can give them the big break they’ve been waiting for.  Often assembled and performed with the absolute minimal rehearsal time necessary, part of the fun of Fringe is simply marveling at what a bunch of creative individuals can accomplish with such limitations.

Last Sunday I saw The Boys Upstairs at the SoHo Playhouse.  Written by Jason Mitchell, The Boys Upstairs is a fun, care-free story about two gay best friends living in New York, their impossible house guest, respective flings and boyfriends, and one very attractive neighbor who may or may not be available.  Initially, when the focus is on buddies Josh, Eric, and Ashley trying to figure out if fresh meat Eric is, in fact, just that, the play hums along as a comedy of manners that would do Noel Coward proud.  But Mitchell starts to quickly and grandly widen his canvas, for reasons both high-minded and low-brow.  There are lots of good arguments about life in the big city that Mitchell makes through the differing views of his characters, and there are dozens of brilliant one-liners and sight gags throughout, but they all come at the expense of the premise.  When Eric knocks on the boys’ door in the final fifteen minutes of the play, he’s been gone for so long that there’s no urgency to his return.  If the show lost some of its more gratuitous moments, each and every one cribbed from standard situation comedy, it could really be something sharp.

On the opposite side of the coin was Tim Aumiller’s Flight, which was a confounding, uncomfortable, but ultimately resonant one act play.  In Flight, two strangers (high strung Paula and affable blue collar bumpkin Hank) find themselves stranded at O’Hare Airport on Thanksgiving Eve, forced into conversation by virtue of their proximity and lack of transportation.  Aumiller’s characters are richly drawn.  We immediately understand that these two have long and complex lives beyond their fateful encounter.  Without spoiling the assorted twists and turns the story takes, I will say that Flight achieves something that I have rarely encountered: it convinces you of the utter uncertainty of truth.  By the time Paula takes her bags and leaves the scene, the audience is left questioning the validity of everything they have just heard and seen.  It was such a jarring, unwelcome feeling that it wasn’t until the day after I saw it that I thought, “Hey, that was actually really good”.

The third (and likely final) show I saw this year at Fringe was one which had gotten a fair amount of hype.  Vote! was a new musical, with a book and lyrics by Ryann Ferguson and music by Steven Jamail.  Part The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and part Legally Blonde, Vote! is the story of the many disparate personalities at Green Valley High School who are seeking the office of student body president.  There’s Little Miss Perfect, cheerleader valedictorian Muffin (played by Legally Blonde alum Bailey Hanks); her fawning best friend, Trish; and Muffin’s conservative nerd nemesis, Mark.  These three form a twisted, comic triangle of power; an inverted Caesar-Cleopatra-and-Antony playing out their drama in suburbia rather than the Sahara.  Orbiting them are senior jock Brody, timid do-gooder Nikki, and sassy history teacher and student government adviser, Ms. Goowdin, among others.  The show’s got humor and it’s got heart, but if it’s going to have legs beyond Fringe, it needs some serious reconstruction.  Even more so than as in The Boys Upstairs, some material in Vote! seems to be there simply because it got a good response.  The songs do very little to drive the action forward, and protagonist Muffin gets no fewer than three repetitive “I want” numbers.  Peripheral characters who intrigue or shine (like Daniel Robinson as Brody and Tracy Weiler as number two cheerleader Angelica) wind up terribly underused.  There’s also the more glaring issue that this show would have been eight times more topical and thus much funnier if it had debuted last fall.  With the work of a good play doctor, who can fix problems both on an below the surface, Vote! could likely be on its way to something more.

Most shows are still playing through this week, so if you have the time, I encourage you to check out the Fringe Festival.  These dedicated folks could use your support, and I find there’s something really enjoyable about watching somebody getting their big break.

~ T

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