EMERGENCY A La Carte
nytheatre.com review by Michael Mraz
November 17, 2012
Another year, another successful collaboration for actor/comedian Nancy Redman and director Austin Pendleton in the United Solo Theatre Festival. Following up last year’s fantastic encore run of CLUTTER: I’m Saving My Life and It’s Killing Me (which earned Redman the Best Comedian award last year and Pendleton the Best Director award the year before), the duo brings us Emergency a la Carte which, while not quite as richly layered as CLUTTER, is hilarious, manic, and very sincere and touching throughout; and at the center is another commanding performance by Redman.
Emergency a la Carte finds Redman figuratively and literally at Death’s door; you know, the guy with the hood and the scythe. The deal: make death laugh and she gets to keep on cracking jokes in the land of the living. But after delivering a veritable smorgasbord of every type of humor, she can’t find the exact right joke to save her life. In the end, she finds that maybe death doesn’t have the same sense of humor as all of us.
Redman is hilarious and intriguing to watch throughout. She’s been described in the past with comparisons to Woody Allen, Richard Lewis, and Jackie Mason; and while I can see the reasoning behind this and this is certainly amazing company to be in, after seeing her solo shows two straight years, she is distinctively herself: none other than Nancy Redman, and I think the comparisons don’t quite do her stage presence and craft justice. Emergency manages to make what would work fantastically as a death-obsessed stand-up act have a beautiful arch and an undercurrent. Redman’s jokes are hilarious (my personal favorite is an exchange with Death: “Wait. Where are the bright lights, the relatives, the tunnel?!...oh, you’re cutting back?” -Even Death is feeling the recession) but the situation brings an urgency to their telling.
It also allows for interesting twists and turns from a writing perspective that Redman takes advantage of. While most great stand-up (and Redman’s stand-up is great) is a polished act comprised of their best material, the pressure of the situations allows for some jokes to bomb, some to be groaners. If you’re telling jokes to save your mortal soul, you’re going to throw everything against the wall and see what sticks. This proves to be one of Redman’s strengths as a writer and performer: a willingness to fail because it’s right for the story.
She also manages to engagingly pull off a difficult feat that is often attempted in a solo show: constant conversation with an off-stage, unheard presence (Death). She gives enough time to take in these silent responses,” hearing” them so well that the audience can seemingly “hear” them, too. Pendleton’s direction drives the manic urgency of the show while still allowing the “conversation” to be believable. And while I missed some of the moments or humanity and nuance that came out of the intentionally scattered CLUTTER, the stakes in Emergency a la Carte made a different, equally interesting use of Redman’s neurotic personae; and as a result, there is never a dull moment.
The interesting turn comes in the final “act” of the play when our hero is finally able to appease Death; not with a joke, but with a story that is a heartfelt departure from the rapid-fire comedy of the first 70 minutes. It raises an interesting point that is still churning in my head: so much of great comedy comes out of grief and pain. Some of the best comedians use it to cope with difficult events in life-so I find it extremely intriguing that Death is not satisfied by poking fun at pain and suffering, but in the end is appeased by a true tale of grief. As Death continues to rebuff Redman’s jokes, the common refrain is “Not real enough, not enough truth? Ok, ok. I understand”. And when she finally tells him a flat-out true story, baring her heart for the first time-not deflecting with comedy- he leaves; and it takes her awhile to realize what happened and why? I just find it very interesting that she repeats that she understands throughout, but then doesn’t seem to understand why she made him leave. So I may be off-base with this conclusion about Emergency, but Redman seems to be commenting on the deflective nature of comedy in the midst of frightening, painful situations.
The ending allows Redman to show that she is just as fantastic an actor as she is a comedian and I truly hope that her solo shows get some more play even beyond the United Solo Festival, because more people should be allowed to discover that. Emergency a la Carte is so enjoyable that, were I playing the role of Redman’s Grim Reaper, she would have been saved within the first 2 minutes of the show.