nytheatre.com review by Daniel Kelley
December 3, 2008
The Irish have the atomic bomb!
This phrase is spoken toward the end of the second act of Improbable Frequency—a new musical now playing at 59e59 and is actually one of the less wild and, yes, improbable statements in the show. The entire evening is an exercise in improbability that will have you both scratching your head and laughing out loud for the better part of two hours.
It's the story of an improbable protagonist, Tristram Faraday, a mild-mannered English cruciverbalist (or one who does crossword puzzles) who is recruited as a code cracker by the English army during World War II. It sets him in an improbable location: the newly trained Faraday is deployed to that hot-bed of Nazi activity—Dublin, Ireland. There Tristram meets a host of improbable characters: the English poet John Betjeman, who is also a spy; Agent Green, an old flame of Tristram's and fellow cruciverbalist, who is now a spy as well; Erwin Schrodinger, an incredibly horny Austrian nuclear physicist; and Philomena O'Shea, an adorable Irish lass with the power to control the weather using radio waves. The story that follows is an improbable mashup of thrilling spy adventure, bawdy vaudeville review, and sci-fi epic.
The style of the piece is equally as improbable as its story: the dialogue is in rhyming verse and most of the music feels like drinking songs (and many of them literally are). Though Improbable Frequency is a musical, the cast is made up of mostly non-singers who speak in rhythm much more than they sing. While there are songs where this style works to perfection—such as the Noel Coward-inspired "Be Careful Not to Patronize the Irish"—at a few crucial dramatic moments in the show, you do wish there were members of the cast who could really let it rip, such as the sultry "Betrayal" number at the end of Act II.
Though the style is broad, and the logic of the world is (you guessed it) improbable, the energetic cast of Improbable Frequency does a great job in creating the bizarre world of the show in a way that feels believable. Peter Hanly as Tristram is pitch-perfect as the straight man in a world gone mad, and Louis Lovett and Marty Rea are equally great as the mad men who inhabit it. The most engaging and fun to watch performer of the evening is easily Sarah-Jane Drummey as Philomena O'Shea. Drummey is delightful in this role, and shows off her excellent comic skills in a variety of hilarious small parts throughout the show. It also doesn't hurt that she's the strongest singer in the company.
The one improbability that Improbable Frequency can't quite overcome is that of where it's being performed: the piece satirizes long held tensions between England and Ireland, but is being presented to a New York audience in Midtown Manhattan. While Improbable Frequency's spy story and the music remain entertaining, the fact that it's being presented in the U.S blunts the material's satirical edge.
Despite this, and the fact that at two hours the show runs a little long, and that the finale doesn't seem to sum up the show as much as I wanted it to, Improbable Frequency is very entertaining, and I found myself often laughing out loud. If you go to Improbable Frequency, it's more than likely you'll have an enjoyable evening at the theatre.