...Another Man's Poison
nytheatre.com review by David Ian Lee
August 12, 2009
The decision to mount ...Another Man's Poison at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater under an Off-Broadway contract, rather than an Equity Showcase Code, suggests fiscal investment on the parts of Orielle Creative Productions and Broliver Productions; indeed, program notes confirm that—"against our better judgment"—at least one retirement fund was tapped on the "torturous path to a glorious opening night."Though by no means lavish, the production values are vibrant, making it all the more unfortunate that this evident labor of love was marched into production with a script in great need of further development.
...Another Man's Poison tells the story of Frankie Masters, a comic poised in 1970 to be the first (in the world of the play) African American entertainer to headline a mainstream television program. Frankie is married to Pauline, who relishes their new sky-high apartment and indulges in Fifth Avenue shopping sprees. The two oft bicker: He's a slave to work, she's wanton, he drinks too much, etc. As "The Frankie Masters Show" develops from conception to on-air pilot, Pauline suffers a spouse who burrows ever deeper into callous narcissism frustratingly disguised as a dad trying to do right by his son, Alan.
Playwright George O. Brome's endeavor runs just over two hours long and has two intermissions; the third act lasts all of 15 minutes, in which narrative threads are not so much tied-up as frayed and abandoned. Pauline has no family, no job, and no money, making the logistics of her final act baffling. Frankie has no filial relationship with his closeted son, so rather than attempt congress or conclusion, Brome utilizes an unfortunately trite device to send the gay character on his way. Tensions are high on the set of "The Frankie Masters Show," with actors understandably sick of Frankie's insolent, belligerent behavior, so—naturally—the show becomes a huge hit and everyone involved is pleased as pie; why anyone would tolerate this untested diva's insults, canceled rehearsals, and masturbatory upstaging is a thing of mystery.
Other ideas are underdeveloped. Frankie Masters is clearly homophobic, but I am divided as to whether the play condones his bigotry or is merely apathetic: Frankie drops the terms "queer"and "faggot"with glib ease, and is never reviled for abhorrent treatment of his gay son. At one point, Frankie relates the pain at having been called a "nigger"by a disgusted white colleague, and though this epithet reverberates with hate and putrescence, no such stigma exists for Frankie's equally offensive rhetoric; an effective parallel regarding intolerance could have been drawn, but an allusion is not attempted (at the performance I attended, audience members laughed at Frankie's defamations).
Exposition lands without subtlety; a game can be made of counting the number of times characters utter a variance of "Remember when..."Still, the actors do the best they can with often leaden material. Leland Gantt attacks the role of Frankie Masters with conviction and enunciation that is one part Olivier, two parts jive. A tangential monologue relating Frankie's experiences during the Korean War is handled with passion and delicacy, resulting in one of the play's more effective sequences.
Brome's script shortchanges Penelope Lowder, who as Pauline is required to navigate emotional territory bordering on the schizophrenic, only to be denied climax and catharsis; during a late-night ER visit, Lowder is left apparently to ad lib sotto-voce while the audience waits for the protagonist to return from an offstage moment of grand guignol. Lowder is warm and endearing, making ...Another Man's Poison all the more unfair to her.
James Edward Shippy stands out as Alan, the even-tempered son of Pauline and Frankie, and Dennis Hearn bring a Harvey Korman-esque charm to his versatile handful of "Frankie Masters Show" characters.
But then: There is the problem of "The Frankie Masters Show." In the vein of Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, the program is presented as a series of sketches staring Wilhelmena, Frankie's in-drag alter-ego. It is reiterated that Frankie makes hilarious social commentary by way of his innovative female creation, yet no such insight appears during our half-dozen glimpses of the character. Along with Flip Wilson's infamous Geraldine, the works of Tyler Perry and Milton Berle's Texaco Star Theater are obvious influences here (though separated from the fictitious Frankie Masters by more than 20 years in either direction): Innovation is a tough pill to swallow, especially when the Wilhelmena bits recycle tired puns, bawdy innuendo, and a Benny Hill aesthetic.
Passion Hansome's staging alternately keeps her actors far upstage-center on a vintage chaise lounge, or turned out in a variant of the fourth position. Much of the movement seems inorganic and stilted: Actors toy awkwardly with a tennis racquet that seems to exist for the sole purpose of being absently toyed with, and in one gratuitous sequence two still-clothed characters appear to orally stimulate one another in a position unbefitting numerical identification.
Burke Wilmore's lighting occasionally includes slides projected onto a billowing screen; the image of an airliner looked to another patron to be a cresting whale. Sean O'Halloran's soundscape offers night scenes in a Manhattan high-rise accompanied by more crickets than to be found in the whole of mainland China, and entrances into the (doorless) apartment are precipitated by the jangling of keys (only to be followed by the appearance of keyless actors).
The most troubling moment occurs after what should be the finale, as the actors—with the exception of Gantt—appear for a Gantt-less curtain call. A scrim is then pulled, revealing Gantt in his underwear. He dresses as Wilhelmena while addressing the audience—a previously unemployed convention—berating and abusing his patrons for their incapacity to understand him: "What you see, you don't get,"Wilhelmena/Frankie seethes, an inversion of a quip made famous by Flip Wilson. This is the penultimate line in a long, rambling monologue designed to chasten those who have paid to see ...Another Man's Poison. Only then does Gantt take his bow.