Monday, July 3, 2023

Theater Reviews: Three One-Person Shows Ingratiate Themselves With Audiences Before Bringing Up Themes of Anti-Semitism (“Just for Us”), Drug Addiction (“Triple Threat”) and Indulgent Monologuists (“One Woman Show”)

One Woman Show (c) Joan Marcus

Theater: Liz Kingsman's One Woman Show 
At the Greenwich House 

There’s no way to talk about Liz Kingsman's One Woman Show without spoiling it. For instance, the title of her show is not even One Woman Show but Wildfowl, which admitted is not as fetching a title to introduce the world to Kingsman’s brand of humor. But it is perfect for her hot take on the one-person/monologue play format, specifically Fleabag (also odiously titled), Phoebe Waller-Bridges’ play version of her hit TV show. Both shows found success at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and both are also deadpan funny. Kingsman, a native Australian living in the UK, even cheekily addresses this in the program that she hopes to make her play into a TV series. I can see Kingsman, whose talent for giving life to a myriad of characters in this 70-minute show, on TV, but One Woman Show or Wildfowl should probably stay as a play. Kingsman begins as typical monologue plays are inclined to do, setting up her life as a Gen Z-er looking for purpose in a bustling metropolis, which in Kingsman’s case is at an aviary conservation organization in London. But Kingsman’s real goal is to deconstruct the one-person play genre by occasionally breaking the fourth wall in a way to give us a meta commentary about the genre in a sort of The Play That Goes Wrong kind of way. Her style is very much in the vein of a Saturday Night Live skit in which her character of Liz is the most unreliable of narrators and nothing should be taken at face value. There really is no throughline as much as a series of outrageous stories as funny as they are manipulative. Once I realized Kingsman’s schtick and how she doesn’t really deviate from it, the show didn’t hold many surprises, except that it’s very funny, especially her flirtation with a new co-worker named Phil (pay close attention to his height, but I may have said too much already). If anyone verbalizes the theme of the show, it would have to be Dinah, Liz’s supervisor at the nonprofit, maybe because she is Australian and Liz can use her natural accent. Some parts parody, some parts stand-up comedy, with a majority part taking the piss out of this genre, Liz Kingsman’s show is 100% funny and irreverent. 

Triple Threat (c) Jeremy Daniel

Theater: Triple Threat 
At Theater Row 

For an actor, being a triple threat is a positive: It means you can act, sing and dance. And that certainly describes actor James T. Lane, an actor who finished a recent stint as Billy Flynn in Chicago on Broadway. Of course, there are many autobiographical one-person plays about actors and their craft that runs the gamut from Anthony Rapp’s off-Broadway hit “Without You” to the Tony Award-winning Broadway monologue show of Elaine Stritch.  Lane, who is a consistent and winning presence in the New York City acting community, is not a household name, and this show will not help those who don’t him because he eschews the usual hallmark of a biographical résumé play (at least until the end) with most of Lane’s success as an actor happening years after the events he covers. Throughout the course of the show, I got to see the dedication, talent and open heartedness of a triple threat performer in action, but the actual triple threat Lane focuses on is the far darker, angrier one of being a black, gay drug addict. Lane certainly doesn’t sugarcoat his descent from his childhood with a proud and strong-willed mother and a dream to act, to getting some early success (including touring with the musical Fame), to discovering drugs like ecstasy in the gay clubs that ultimately lead to his introduction to crack. While there is a bravery to this storytelling on Lane’s part — it feels like therapeutic catharsis to go through this horrific journey every night — and there are vivid descriptions of harrowing degradation, Lane’s presentation is less of a story than it is a kaleidoscope of memories, milestones and moments of revelation. While laudable, without a narrative the audience can sometimes feel at sea. Characters are not introduced as they just appear. We get the gist of their impactful role in Lane’s life (some positive, most negative), but it would have been even more powerful if we actually got some dramatic interactions rather than just gut-punches. Director Kenny Ingram tries his best to help Lane navigate through the emotions, including an effective use of video projections to personify Lane’s inner-conflict. But Lane really doesn’t have anything new to tell us about the very real horrors of addictions that we haven’t seen in countless movies, plays and documentaries. There is a scene late in the play that is a powerful indictment of a homophobic and racist America as he stands shirtless wiping his hands across his body in anger, trying to erase and thus placate the parts of his life that pose as threats. This exorcism is a victory for a performer who bares his soul for 70 minutes (today, he is an addiction survivor, but sorry, America, he is still black and gay), but as a play, it feels like we could have gone deeper into the mind of an addict rather than just the actions and consequences of one. 

Just for Us (c) Matthew Murphy

Theater:  Just for Us 
On Broadway at the Hudson Theatre 

When I first saw the enjoyably funny monologue play Just for Us Off-Broadway, I was impressed with writer and performer Alex Edelman’s ease on stage and how relatable his story was, even though most of his stories stem from his specific background as an Orthodox Jew growing up in Suburban Boston. Since seeing the show in early 2022, Edelman’s star has been on the rise, with profiles in national publications and news programs and visits to the White House, all while touring his show around the world before landing back in New York, this time in an almost 1,000-seat Broadway house compared to the 170-seat Off-Broadway. Has fame changed him, or will his storytelling be broader? Thankfully, he is both equally humble and highly confident on stage, looking up at two extra levels of seats above him. Edelman starts the evening very much like a stand-up comedian, with a story about a gorilla that has nothing to do with the main story (until it does), but with the help of the invisible guiding hand of late director Adam Brace, Edelman starts to weave in the show’s main plot, which is Edelman’s chutzpah as a Jew going to a white supremacist meeting in Queens. This story is so unique and unbelievable that if he even for a second takes the audience for granted, the story’s winding and carefully structured narrative would be lost. So, Edelman is patient as he lets each step of his journey into Queens, as well as his relationship with the actual group, sink in. As much as I love this part of the evening, especially as Edelman gets more serious in his attacks of anti-Semitism and his plea for empathy, I have to say it was his childhood stories that impacted me more this time. And although I don’t believe Edelman is pushing the comedy after a year and half of doing the show, his portrayal of his brother, the Olympic Skeleton athlete, does seem a bit broader. As a younger brother of an overachieving sibling, I’ll allow it. It doesn’t seem much has changed from when I saw it last year, maybe with fewer references to the pandemic, and even though I knew the punchline of most of his stories, including why his family celebrated Christmas one year, I was always surprised by a turn of phrase or a relatable aside before the eventual belly laughs. At one point at the matinee I attended, the car noises of 44th Street intruded into the world Edelman was carefully crafting for us, which rattled him for a second. Welcome to Broadway, Alex Edelman, you’re not in Greenwich Village anymore.

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