Theater Review: Lavaman

Ever go to see a band, and the drums start motoring, the guitars crank up, the bass begins to thud, you feel your head starting to move up and down, and you're caught up in the feeling that you're about to be rocked… but then, as the song goes on, you find yourself waiting, and then you're still waiting, and the hook doesn't come… and they play another song, and then another, each one louder and more raucous than the last, and you realize that, although the band has all the raw energy it needs and more, and solid musicianship too, somehow… the songs just don't go anywhere? And yet the band keeps on playing, fruitlessly.

It can happen in theater too, and such is the case with Lavaman, Casey Wimpee's literally visceral new play, currently running through July 18 at the Ohio Theatre as part of Soho Think Tank's Ice Factory 2009 summer festival. The title character is an animated monster created by Arnie (Michael Mason) for his comic book—or, as he insists, "graphic novel." The live action is interspersed with a number of amusing Lavaman animations, but the one it opens with is the most telling: Lavaman's cartoon bout of painful, multicolored flatulence and diarrhea turns out to presage the play's logorrhea.

First it's Gill (Cole Wimpee), an alcoholic-turned-vegetarian with carpal tunnel syndrome and an aching back, who can't stop ranting and shouting about the punk rock band he used to have with Arnie's dead twin brother. (That's right, a dead twin brother. Everyone here has dead parent or sibling issues.) Gill, it seems at first, is supposed to be one of those Lanford Wilson-style flame-on characters who torches other people out of their complacency. But his voluble energy doesn't drive the plot or change anyone's life; there's mostly void around him–lots of sound and fury, not signifying much. The script has to rely too heavily on musical references and other pop-culture signifiers to score characterization points on stage or laughs from the audience.

Enter Dino (Adam Belvo), the third member of this sad triumvirate, a former bandmate who has "sold out" and gotten rich by day-trading (it's 1999). Dino is a larger-than-life personality, even more so than Gill. Dino’s own issues–his have both parental and sibling elements–have propelled him on a globe-trotting carnivorous rampage. Now he's back, hoping to celebrate his birthday with his old buddies in gruesome style. But Dino, like Lavaman, is a cartoon character; his preening and howling drive away any empathy we might have started to feel for stuck-in-the-past Gill or creatively blocked Arnie.

Told in a series of flashbacks, the story zeroes in on the events leading up to Dino's protracted, violent end. But unlike the punk rock songs the characters listen to and talk about, the play lacks a hook, for all its vehement verbosity and claustrophobic fury. In trying so hard to be provocative, this much too long play ends up provoking only exhaustion and a mild nausea.

Lavaman closes July 18. Soho Think Tank's Ice Factory 2009 continues through Aug. 15 at the Ohio Theatre, 66 Wooster St., NYC. For tickets please visit Smarttix or call 212-868-4444.

Photo by Kalli Newman.

Theater Review (NYC): Twisted

Twisted is a modest, uneven, but often diverting collection of short one-acts. It opens with the most substantial and ambitious of the evening's five plays. In Matt Hanf's Teddy Knows Too Much, the hefty actor Peter Aguero deadpans the role of three-year-old Billy, whose toys—a plush bear, a Dick Cheney mask, a rubber duckie—are his only confidantes.

While these imaginative figures can be alternately understanding or sinister, the adults around Billy are universally insensitive. ("I think I'll wear the emerald earrings you got me for our last fight," wisecracks his mother, while his father considers leering at the violence in The Sopranos to constitute a valid "family night.") Billy fights back the only way he can: with ever-intensifying mischief.

The parents are written and played as such churlish, career-obsessed caricatures that the play tends to overstate its case; a small boy's imaginative world can be terrifying even in the kindliest of families. But Aguero's brash, funny performance and the lines Hanf gives him elevate the show above easy satire. "Being good is what is expected," philosophized the overgrown, biker-bearded toddler, "and what is expected is rarely rewarded."

Mark Harvey Levine's "The Kiss" is a slight but well-scripted scenario of two friends (Flor Bromley and Jonathan Reed Wexler, both very good) touching on feelings that haven't been touched on before. It's followed by two skits that dramatize comically bizarre what-if situations, in the style of Saturday Night Live skits. They're one-joke pieces, so I won't give away the jokes, but unlike some of the abovementioned TV skits, they're pretty funny—especially Justin Warner's "Head Games"—and they don't overstay their welcome; suffice it to say there's a garden shears, many pastries, and a very funny Lindsay Beecher as a teenage Salome.

Ms. Beecher returns as a coke-addicted exotic dancer for the evening's final play and its only real dud. In "Party Girl," a young man (Billy Fenderson) attending his cousin's bachelor party discovers that one of the strippers hired for the party (Becky Sterling) is… his girlfriend. Despite the pointed efforts of the talented cast, the play reads like a bloated drama-class exercise—its potentially interesting recipe turns out to be a pot of poorly cooked gruel. It's a downer of an end to an otherwise upbeat and amusing evening.

Twisted is the Rising Sun Performance Company's third annual one-act series. It plays at at UNDER St. Marks through July 26. Tickets at Smarttix or 212-868-4444, or at horseTRADE. Photos by David Anthony.

Theater Review: Perfect Wedding by Robin Hawdon

No one does bedroom farce like the British, and a fine example just blustered onto the New York stage with the Vital Theatre Company’s sharp new production of Robin Hawdon’s Perfect Wedding.

A man wakes up on his wedding morning in the hotel’s bridal suite with a naked woman he doesn’t know. Hilarity ensues, and a touching love story too. Teresa K. Pond’s sure-handed direction shapes Hawdon’s snappy dialogue, slapstick humor, and blurry maze of plot twists into a cheery evening of laughs and good feeling.

The dialogue has been slightly Americanized, but the British pedigree shows, not only in the door-slamming, under-skirt-hiding story, but in the occasional unnatural phrase (e.g. “very well”). However, 99 percent of the time, the actors (and the adaptation) hit just the right notes of absurdity, desperation, and overdoing it.

Elastic-faced Matt Johnson plays Bill, the panicked groom, with a sweetly expressive mixture of bug-eyed fear and little-boy-lostness. The beautiful Amber Bela Muse does a nice job with the straight role of the clueless bride, although there’s a late scene or two where she seems a little too calm for a bride on her wedding day.

The effervescent Dayna Graber threatens to steal the show as the wisecracking, mint-popping hotel housekeeper who gets caught up in the proceedings. But Tom (Fabio Pires in a very promising Off-Broadway debut) distracts us with his finely tuned fury upon discovering that Bill’s best man is by no means the only role he’s destined to play in this careening plot. And Kristi McCarson, in the initially thankless “other woman” role of Judy, captivates with her stark revelations in Act II.

Ms. McCarson also looks stunning in the wedding dress, which gets its own credit, being on loan from English couturier Jane Wilson-Marquis. If you like this wedding dress, you can go to site >> here which sells similar designs! It’s quite a gorgeous garment. I won’t give away how Judy ends up wearing it. Suffice it to say the bride’s mother (Ghana Leigh) is involved.

Enough. Whatever troubles you may bring with you into the theater, this crackerjack production will make you forget them, at least for a rollicking hour and forty-five minutes. Perfect Wedding plays at the Theatres at 45 Bleecker Street, New York, through Aug. 2. Get tickets online or call (212) 579-0528.

Photos: Sun Productions, Inc.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Craig Jackson, the Iveys, Bobby Long

Craig Jackson, Damn the Roses

Music is a funny, time-twisting business. With five albums to his name, Craig Jackson just got nominated for "Best New Band" in Nashville's Toast of Music City Awards.

Though Jackson's sound is commonly described as "Americana," at times it can suggest Tom Petty and Don Henley and 1970s-80s heartland rock as much as it does the polished but back-to-basics sound of Lucinda Williams and Jim Lauderdale. Too, Jackson's youthful, slightly scratchy voice is more typical of pop and alt-rock than of traditional country and Americana. Still, beginning with the second track, "Everytime You Leave," he slides into modern (but not "commercial") country music territory.

These terms, of course, are labels, and as such fairly unimportant. His voice, whatever "type" you call it, gives his arrangements a warm glow and a melded softness that carries through pretty much the whole disc. In general, these songs take their time, maintaining laid-back but emotionally potent moods. Highlights include the war story "1941," the keening title track, and the catchy pop of "Simple."

The Iveys, The Iveys

These Iveys are a band of three young siblings out of West Texas, not the now-obscure 1960s Iveys that evolved into Badfinger. But there is something pleasingly retro in their focus on thoughtful pop songwriting and glittering vocal harmonies.

The catchy soft-rock nuggets "Leave It To Love" and "Going the Right Way" are the best tracks on this eight-song disc; the single, "Back When It Was Our World," is solid too, though, to my ear, not quite as inspired. The slower tunes, like "The Promise," "Whispered Words," and the meandering "Your Love Now," though bedded in fragrant arrangements and decorated with sweet, nicely understated harmonies, don't have the pop flair of the more upbeat tracks. I suspect that as the Iveys' lyric-writing matures the emotional impact of their music will become more consistent.

Despite my reservations, this is a promising debut from a group that could, as likely as anyone, emerge as a Fleetwood Mac for the new century – without the messy divorces.

Bobby Long, Dirty Pond Songs

Staying on the youth tip, here comes Bobby Long. I almost didn't listen to this CD. The black-and-white sensitive-boy cover shot, the Myspace provenance, and above all, the fact that Long, still a London college student, had become known only because Robert Pattinson sang a mush-mouthed version of a song Long co-wrote in the movie Twilight – all these factors suggested that this was overhyped fluff.

Hyped, yes. Fluff, not so much. With raw vocal power and smart, evocative lyrics, Long is a folksinger with a spirited intensity that puts him outside and above the masses of singer-songwriters roaming our cities, towns, and social networks.

His original voice comes through in a combination of factors. One is his solid guitar playing, which takes a lot from the hard-strummed sound of the early folk-pop crafters like Bob Dylan and Dave Cousins. A more unusual factor is that, unlike most modern songwriters, Long seems to really like language, layering and intertwining his thoughts and images. Meanwhile, echoes of Nick Cave and David Bowie and Leonard Cohen shoot through his melodies, though many of the songs are rooted in real traditional folk idioms (think the Child Ballads).

Long's debt to traditional and Dylan-esque folk is evident in "Who Have You Been Loving," where detailed imagery in the verses alternates with a repeated one-line chorus – but with the composition juiced up by delaying that chorus. "The Bounty of Mary Jane" resembles an old, sad ballad: "I will fall upon this town / To call your name, my sweet suffragette / my sweet Mary Jane." Songs like the waltzing "Being a Mockingbird" would fit right into an Americana playlist today, but Long's undisguised working-class British accent reminds us, as Billy Bragg did, how the American Appalachian music tradition is deeply rooted in ballads from the British Isles.

Some parts of some songs don't always seem to quite make sense together, but, because Long sings with such an honest tone, the discontinuities mostly serve to hold the listener's interest. The melody of "Penance Fire Blues" at first echoes Bowie's "Jean Genie" and the song (coincidentally?) contains yet another curious mention of "suffragettes." Then it resolves into a cry to "let me run" and a worry about finding one's feet.

Though the songs don't always hang together, and a few are forgettable, this is a perceptive and rich collection. "I'm afraid to die," Long writes in "Left to Lie," the most powerful track on the disc: "I'm nearly old / I'm almost young / So I'm told." Shades of Dylan's My Back Pages, yes, but clinging to and building on those hoary roots in his own way. The CD will be released shortly via Long’s Myspace page, where several singles are already available including “The Bounty of Mary Jane.”