Thursday, August 15, 2013

'Clown Play': One of the Offbeat Treats of the New York International Fringe Festival

We’ve barely said farewell to the New York Musical Theater Festival when who should come strolling in but the New York International Fringe Festival, with its barrage of 185 shows in 16 days in over 20 different venues and time slots.

I don’t know how many of these I’ll be getting to, but let me begin with the first one I saw.  It’s called Clown Play, whose playwright Paul David Young made something of a name for himself at the 2011 Fringe with In The Summer Pavilion, a play that imagines different possible futures for three friends.  That play went on to an Off Broadway run at 59East59 and has since been turned into a film, set to be released in the coming year. 

Whether Clown Play will follow that route remains to be seen, but what is clear is that Mr. Young is a talented wordsmith who is able to take seemingly disparate elements and coalesce them into a logical and unexpectedly sweet play (unexpected, since a semi-automatic weapon puts in a threatening appearance from time to time).

As Clown Play opens, we are face-to-face with a woman (the highly talented Carol Lee Sirugo) who waxes philosophic. “All is silence,” she begins, before going off on a Beckett-like ramble on matters of great significance, not unlike Lucky’s speech in Waiting for Godot. 

Is she insane, we wonder, or a lost soul of some sort, trapped if not in Beckett Land, then maybe in Sartre Town or Kafka Village?

We will get answers, but not right away. Instead, the scene shifts to a man and a woman, Tommy (Joel Reuben Ganz) and Nancy (Emily James), who are floundering around in the dark, much frightened and feeling at risk of personal harm from someone or something in the unknown. 

Again, the feeling of dread pervades.  What kind of place is this?  Could these characters be dead souls drifting around in Purgatory? 

And finally, we are introduced to yet another couple, Barry (Ryan Barry, a Summer Pavilion alum) and Elisa (Marissa Molnar), who have set up housekeeping in an apparently abandoned home.  Now things start to feel less like a ghost story and more like an all-too-real post-apocalyptic world, something, perhaps, like the one in Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders.   

Teasingly, the play rotates among these characters in short scenes that we must take in before everything begins to make sense. One of the better ones is a perverse version of the ubiquitous Christmas letter (in this case, a video), a litany of life horrors recited by Ms. Sirugo’s character.

Just when we are questioning whether all this is leading anywhere beyond the suggestive and atmospheric, the characters start to interact with one another—at first with a not-surprising degree of suspicion (hence the semi-automatic weapon), but gradually warming until they loosen up and begin to meld into a cohort resembling the Tribe from Hair, a self-made family against all expectations.

And to what do they owe this dramatic change?  Why, consider the title as you leave the theater having had a surprisingly good time. 

And while it is Mr. Young’s writing skill that was able to turn seemingly random scenes into a real charmer of a play, much credit must go to the cast (all of whom have impressive theater credentials, by the way), and to director Robert Lutfy. 

Clown Play is a little oddball, no doubt, but the production at the COW (Celebration of Whimsy) Theater on Clinton Street in the Lower East Side is well worth putting on your Fringe list.  If that part of the city not your usual theatrical habitat, consider that it is just off Houston Street and only a couple of blocks from Katz’s Delicatessen.  I recommend picking up a pastrami Reuben after the show, and pondering the magic of theater while you are eating it.     

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