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Fantasy Artists review by Stephen Cedars
August 12, 2012

Tonal consistency can be a terribly overrated quality, especially in theatre.  Admittedly, a story that veers between pathos and high comedy can be distancing, but it can also produce extraordinary visceral response as we confront the potential for any moment to contain within it a microcosm of human contradictions and complexity.

It's largely in terms of its tonal inconsistency that Fantasy Artists, a new play by James Ryan Caldwell presented as part of the New York International Fringe Festival, succeeds.  The play is easily pitchable as a high-concept: a handless sex phone operator, perhaps the best in the business, falls for one of her clients after an accidental meeting.  And yet the play aspires to craft a much deeper image of human depravity and loneliness through its protagonist Mare Pines, whose hardened self-loathing is given a fantastic comic sheen by Mary Jane Gibson.  The whole show lives in a strange place between cartoonish broadness and psychological gut-punch, and thanks to the tight rhythm shaped by director Javierantonio Gonzalez, there's great theatricality mined from that disconnect.  Gibson's long conversations with clients read like irony but are played with a sick devotion towards engendering fantasies for unsatisfied people, and one sequence, in which Mare forces her sweet, optimistic protégé Lorraine towards a sickening self-abnegation, is doubly affecting because it builds from recognizable sketch material into something much darker.

The unfortunate flipside is that the tonal inconsistency also keeps the play from achieving its intended effect in the second half of its 90-minute runtime.  Part of the problem is that where Mare's psychology supports banter while offering glimpses of deep longing, two of the characters – Lorraine and Shorty (Mare's love interest) – are too underwritten to support the psychological weight the story ultimately needs them to carry (though the committed performances of Lauren Currie Lewis and Miguel Govea go a long way towards masking that deficit).  And Mare's sister, TV self-help celebrity Parry Pines, slowly devolves into caricature as her levels of complication are shed in favor of stock phoniness. 

To a large extent, it's because the play shifts from a character study into a more conventional romance arc that the expectation of psychological depth is even suggested.  Throughout the play, all four actors find moments of great theatrical weirdness – Mare's fantasy scored to a Velvet Underground song, suggestions of Genet-esque role-playing, a slew of private confessions – that by all means recommend it as a worthwhile experience.  Caldwell has a fascinating world that grows more dramatic through its story but grows equally less theatrically profound at the same time.  Ultimately, all of the play's elements cohere into a mishmash of comedy and drama that make it hard at times to know when and how to laugh – but in case I'm not being clear, that's a good thing.