Theater Review: MilkMilkLemonade by Joshua Conkel

One of the funniest shows in town right now is also one of the most searching. Joshua Conkel's MilkMilkLemonade is a rollicking, twisting, and twisted coming-of-age tale that's also, thanks to an excellent cast and Isaac Butler's boisterous, assured direction, pretty slick for an Off Off Broadway production.

The Management has become known as an edgy downtown group with notable depth. Their new production explores being gay in America, but specifically Middle America, and more precisely a chicken farm not far from the implied national nightmare succinctly summed up in the name "Mall Town, USA." Conkel's script feelingly and humorously explores the relationship between two schoolboys, one effeminate and (mostly) liking himself that way, the other so desperately fighting his homosexual urges that he lashes out in a number of ways: "setting stuff on fire," getting into fights at home and at school, and punching and kicking the air like Cuchulain battling the waves.

The graceful, plastic, slightly Jim Carrey-ish Andy Phelan is a joy as Emory, who both embodies and explodes the stereotype of the boy who plays with dolls, dreams of singing and dancing on Broadway, and sometimes wishes he were a girl just to make things "easier." Elliot, the tough kid – coiled with rage, but at heart a romantic with a thing for tuxedos – is played wonderfully by the diminutive actress Jess Barbagallo. She's much shorter than Phelan, and the reverse-role height difference is a constant reminder that what's on the inside is what should matter. Elliot is bitterly ashamed of their sex play in Emory's barn, and it discomfits Emory too, in a different way; Nanna, his grandmother, is constantly trying to "cure" him of his effeminate ways, and his best friend and confidant is not a person at all but Linda (Jennifer Harder), an oversized chicken.

Linda's not a pretend friend, exactly. Though only Emory can understand her clucking, she's known to all, having attained semi-mythical status with the curious Elliot and become a thorn in the side of the impatient Nanna (Michael Cyril Creighton in hilarious drag). Nanna just wants to get her chickens processed and sold, while Emory wants to protect this special chicken from the jaws of the machine; in fact, he wants to grow up and turn the farm into a vegan paradise. How it all ends isn't terribly important; getting there is where the fun is, and there's an awful lot of it – a number of moments had the audience in such stitches the cast had to wait patiently for the laughter to fade.

Meredith Steinberg's energetic and funny choreography deserves mention, and the choices of music are spot-on – how can you not love a show that features "I've Never Been to Me"? And, while the whole cast shines, it wouldn't be fair to skip a mention of Nikole Beckwith, who plays a constantly terrified narrator/chorus figure in a black leotard. Among other things, she provides translations of Linda's chicken-speak in a deadly-funny synthesized-computer voice, plays a creepy evil twin, and dances the part of Elliot's beloved Barbie-type doll.

There's so much to recommend this show, so many show-stopping bits and scenes, that it was standing room only last night at the tiny UNDER St. Marks theater. (Beckwith and Harder's spider scene is not to be missed.) It runs only through Sept. 26, so get your tickets now.

Photos by John Alexander.