Theater Review: Telethon by Kristin Newbom

Five humans, all with troubles, assemble at a Dunkin' Donuts wearing Halloween costumes. After raising money for their group home for the disabled, the three residents and two staffers coalesce into a bickering but affectionate group. On some level, as playwright Kristin Newbom demonstrates, the disabled and the staffers aren't so different. But that's about as much of a moral as can be extracted from the three scenes that comprise this compact one-act; Newbom's witty script is about as un-preachy as a play can get.

In large measure, the play is about money. First, it's physically present — the tables are covered with the dollar bills our heroes have raised and are counting. In fact, counting the money is the silent breathing action behind the play's dialogue. telethon Second, money is constantly presenting itself in the abstract, as the characters worry about the group home's funding, their own financial situations, and whether they can take a dollar from the pile to buy a cup of coffee.

It's all very funny — bordering on the absurd, yet believable and touching. Jerry (Andrew Weems), who walks with crutches, is a philosophizing motormouth whose rampant fabricating hides a well of loneliness. Wheelchair-bound Shelly (Birgit Huppuch) gets a lot of the biggest laughs with a stream of innocent non sequiturs; revealing some of the circumstances of her life in quick, unexpected darts, she's the exposed heart of this makeshift family. Gary (Debargo Sanyal), who has a severe neuromuscular dystrophy and uses a motorized wheelchair, hardly says anything out loud, but we do learn, in a quite startling way, what has been occupying the mind inside his uncooperative body.

The staffers are in sadder states than their charges. Scott (Greg Keller), outwardly a handsome young man, suffers from crippling anxiety that leaves him hyperventilating and feeling like a "barren landscape" with a fire in his belly. Lonely Ann (Christina Kirk), a single mother, fights off creditors while nursing an unrequited crush on Scott.

The cast shines, Ken Rus Schmol directs smoothly, and Kirche Leigh Zeile's costumes are hilarious. But the real star of this show is the sparkling script. Ms. Newbom has a surefire sense of rhythm. Watching this play is like listening to a brilliant piece of music executed with precision and filled with surprises.

Telethon, the third and final play of Clubbed Thumb's Summerworks 2009, closes June 27.

Photo by Carl Skutsch. (L-R): Andrew Weems (Jerry), Birgit Huppuch (Shelly), and Greg Keller (Scott)

This View of Life… Or That One

Dotting the fields by the road around the Caribbean island of St. Kitts are hundreds of white birds. Marveling at the beauty of these graceful, long-necked animals, we asked Solomon, our hotel's driver, what they were.

"Egrets," he replied. "They look pretty, but they're damn nuisances. They shit all over my pool."

It's all relative. Here in New York we've got open-air double-decker tourist buses all over the place. When I'm walking, I like to see the buses. It's fun to watch the tourists gawking at the skyscrapers and famous sights that to me are just part of the everyday scenery. It's useful, and enjoyable, to be made aware of different points of view.

When I'm trying to drive downtown, though, the buses are a nuisance, clogging up the intersections like mis-oriented vitamin pills in your throat. So: another point-of-view shift, this time all within one person, pedestrian vs. driver. Every conceivable point in space or time is (theoretically) somebody's point of view, and all those points of view are out there criss-crossing and opposing, separating us from one another and dividing us internally too.

Somewhere, terrain-wise, between a small, underdeveloped Caribbean island and the heart of Manhattan is the suburb I grew up in. It was a good place to be a kid. A few years later, it was a boring place to be a teenager. It hadn't changed; I had. Now I've shifted yet again, looking down my nose at suburbs altogether.

Yet even though I haven't lived in one in decades, when I visit suburbs in other areas I feel superior and defensive about my own home town: we had sidewalks, why don't you have sidewalks? What if someone wants to go for a walk? Who planned this town? Meanwhile someone from that sidewalkless community is probably driving through my old town thinking: how can people live in a place that doesn't have any hills?

It's amazing, when you think about it, that we function and get along as well as we do. Sure, there are always wars going on, and people stereotyping, despising, and oppressing other people, countries, races… suburbs. But countries survive for centuries. And we have not blown up the planet, nor wiped ourselves back to the Bronze Age, despite well over half a century of capability.

We may have point-of-view problems, but we did evolve as social animals. That gave us the smarts we constantly use to both help and hurt ourselves individually and collectively. The fact that people can live in small groups or large ones, in every kind of terrain, and within a wide variety of social institutions, tells us something important:

There's hope for humanity. There's hope for the Earth. There's even hope for some of the beautiful creatures we share the planet with.

Just as long as they don't shit in my pool.*

*Metaphorical. I don’t have a pool.

Theater Review: The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side

A chaotic apartment: dented beer cans, assorted musical instruments, dirty walls, kitschy objects strewn about. Another play about angsty twenty-somethings trying to decide what to do with their lives? Look again: the revolutionary banners and scrawled slogans add up to more than the stuff of typical college-age rebelliousness. So: a play about 1960s radicals? Look (and listen) yet again: it's 2009, iPods are everywhere, Barack Obama is President, and this is a play by the Amoralists. Hackneyed convention is not on the menu.

At the center of the tale is a reverse-Prodigal Son story. Billy (James Kautz), a drug-addicted revolutionary and the emotional focal point of an anarchic sexual foursome, receives a visit from his straight-arrow younger brother Evan (Nick Lawson). Though Billy is the one who is estranged from his family, Evan's manic, hilarious frat-boy wiggerspeak is as bizarre and incomprehensible to Billy's tribe as the group's four-way "marriage" and off-the-economic-grid lifestyle are to him and the outside world. pied pipers But Evan quickly forms an attachment to Dawn (Mandy Nicole Moore), the newest, youngest, and most honest member of the foursome. And when bad news arrives in Act Three, wrenching complications ensue.

Playwright Derek Ahonen has a finely tuned ear for the way his Communist-Anarchist-Environmentalist heroes and heroines talk. The play skewers their free-love and pop-psychology platitudes, while loving the characters to death at the same time. I say "the play" because while Mr. Ahonen may be responsible for the dialogue, the Amoralists truly are, as their mission statement proclaims, an "actor driven" company. It feels as if these actors were born to play these parts. The play is a perfect whole — not for a second is the theatrical spell broken.  And somehow the political and moral message survives all the mockery.

Matt Pilieci, who plays the volcanic, hyper-vital yet death-obsessed Wyatt, and Mr. Kautz are reprising their roles from the 2007 production. The impish Ms. Moore isn't, but she is just as perfectly locked into her role, and the same is true of the darkly focused Sarah Lemp, who plays Dear, the fourth member and the group's mother figure. Each of the four can dominate the stage in one way or another; together they're an ensemble of scary intensity, one minute boiling in anger, the next erupting in crazed funnyness, yet always, in their overcooked way, seeming to truly love one another.

As always in these apparently Utopian situations, there turns out to be a sugar daddy. Donavan (Malcolm Madera), the rich owner of the building, uses the money-losing restaurant Dear and Wyatt run downstairs as a tax write-off, paying them and their lovers in room and board. Since this is a New York City story, it isn't giving too much away to mention that the realities of real estate play a part in the plot. But the meat of the play is its acidic depiction of the fearsome foursome through the juggernaut of Act One, and the challenge posed to them by Evan's cynicism in the slower and slightly too preachy Act Two. When things begin to fall apart in Act Three, it feels inevitable; these characters are simply too big for the temporarily comfortable life they've created for themselves.

And the center, the emotionally volatile Billy, cannot hold. Running his radical newspaper, engaging in frantic phone conversations with his revolutionary compatriots in Mexico, defusing conflicts right and left, he is a fount of endless nervous energy, but at the same time he's frozen in place, an idealistic man out of time, powerless to effect real change in the world. When this paralysis manifests physically, Billy is reduced to a raw lump of feeling, like the horribly transformed fly-creature tumbling out of the transporter pod at the end of David Cronenberg's The Fly. It's a captivating moment, and it sends us reeling into the street feeling provoked, enlivened, even a little bit enlightened.

Pictured: Matthew Pilieci as Wyatt, Mandy Nicole Moore as Dawn and James Kautz as Billy.  Photo by Larry Cobra. 

The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side by The Amoralists runs through June 28 at P.S. 122.  Visit the P.S. 122 website for times and tickets or call 212-352-3101.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Trevor Alguire, Stillhouse Hollow, Hot Monkey Love

Trevor Alguire’s music is rooted in the traditions and commonplaces of country music, but it has a modern sensibility.

Trevor Alguire, Thirty Year Run

This world always has room for new easygoing, rootsy country music, as long as the songs are good, and Ottawa-based Trevor Alguire's new disc frequently hits the target. "Full of Rust," a basic, fiddle-charged, two-and-a-half-minute gem, opens the disc strongly. Other highlights include the slow-drawl waltz of "Troubles Me So" with its creamy harmonies, the insistently elemental "Like Old Times," the hard-edged, quirky "The One," and the rollicking "These Words," which asks an unusually honest question: "Would you hold me to / These words I say to you?"

The mostly brief songs don't overstay their welcome, making their statements and closing up neatly. "Away From You Now" is an exception, taking a while to get going but bearing fruit if you're in a relaxed, stick-with-it kind of mood — and that's the mood this disc will put you in, notwithstanding its sprinkling of up-tempo tunes.

Alguire sings in a smooth, unprepossessing, slightly vulnerable baritone that's both expressive and soothing. On the instrumental side, the performances are impeccable. Fine mandolin work by Gilles Leclerc and assured fiddling by Michael Ball stand out.

Melodic conventions pull certain songs down into country cliché, but most of the time Alguire stays on the honest side of the fine line between accessible and unoriginal. The sweet title track helps prove that although his music is rooted in tradition and country music commonplaces, he has a modern sensibility. It tells of a man who's spent his whole career working in a paper mill, but now those days are gone: "There's no such thing as a thirty year run today / Son, you're fired."

Stillhouse Hollow, Dakota

If Trevor Alguire is rootsy, Tennessee band Stillhouse Hollow is downright lo-fi. Their signature sound has a ragged charm, acoustic and old-timey, with banjo, mandolin, harmonica, and upright bass more prominent than guitar. The clear, light-spirited vocals from primary songwriter Nathan Griffin and the boys have a youthful simplicity with just enough quaver to convince. Standouts: "Strollin' In," which suggests the Byrds' country period; the jaunty "Painfully True"; and the silly, sad-eyed "Pimp Hand."

Hot Monkey Love, Speakin' Evil

Hot Monkey Love hits home with a barrage of Chicago blues all twisted up with strands of Southern rock and soul and a gritty New York City attitude. The disc opens with a crushing rendition of "Palace of the King," written by Leon Russell, Don Nix, and "Duck Dunn" in honor of the great Freddie King. (John Mayall also covered the song on a recent album.) The band is equally at home with Jimi Hendrix's "Angel," and lands a surprisingly tasty cover of Alicia Keys's breakout hit, "Fallin'."

The band can succeed with a song like that, first because they're good arrangers, but also because of clear-voiced singer Jack O'Neill's ability (like Lou Gramm, whom he resembles vocally) to convey a sensitive lyric as easily as he can belt out a rocker. This serves him very well in one of the strongest original songs on the disc, "Weight Off My Shoulders," a gorgeous duet with guest Antonique Smith (of Rent fame). Another great arrangement makes the original "Stay" a highlight, and the funky blues of the title track (also an original) brings Son Seals to mind. Overall the band's own songs stand up well against covers by the likes of B. B. King, Robert Johnson, and Artie White, and that's saying a lot.

Fans of electric blues can't go wrong with this disc. It has a little of everything, but a muscular, authentic blues sensibility infuses it all.