nytheatre.com review by Josh Sherman
August 10, 2008
Standup comedians are well-known to have their dark sides, and so it isn't particularly surprising to hear of a possible suicide among their ranks. Choke City, a new two-act play by writer/director/performer Manny Liyes, mines this too-familiar material in a scattershot dark comedy-mystery that fails to pay off.
Liyes plays Billy Lopes, a foul-mouthed up-and-coming Latino comedian, who has changed his last name from Lopez to hide his ethnicity. Choke City opens with Lopes bombing on stage, presumably his last show before his suicide. Through a series of flashbacks, we are told the back story as a journalist (Eddie Johnson) tries to track down the reasons for Lopes taking his own life. His fellow comic, Johnny Boy Casey (Will Manning), knows that Lopes is struggling financially, and sets up Lopes to do some kind of favor for a "business man" named Ernest Byner (David King). Complicating things further is Lopes's love interest, a prop comic named Grace Lee (Meg Cheng), who argues with Lopes incessantly but maintains a boyfriend (Johnny Ferro).
To Liyes's credit, he can write some terrific standup comedy routines, some real guffaw-inducing material. Manning is extremely convincing as a slightly out of control comedian and delivers his monologues sharply. Ferro delivers a killer Christopher Walken impersonation as his act, particularly hilarious dressed as Walken's Oscar-winning character in the film The Deer Hunter. Liyes himself can deliver a comic monologue—his riff on Gandhi in a techno club is highly amusing.
The thing that drags down Choke City is the lethargic pace of the plot unraveling through the eyes of the journalist. The stakes simply aren't high enough to care about Lopes's supposed misery. Liyes spends time telling us that Lopes is a "loser," but I never saw Lopes lose at anything—e.g., I never saw him get beat up in an alley by Byner, or humiliated onstage by Casey or Lee. In fact, I didn't learn enough about the back story of Lopes to care very much about his death—he just doesn't feel like much of an underdog to root for, which minimizes the impact of his doom. Liyes further complicates things by ending Choke City abruptly and without tying up several loose ends of the rambling plot.
There is a good chunk of comic talent on display at Choke City. There is reason to believe that Billy Lopes's story could be told in a more dramatic and expedient fashion with some future adjustments from Liyes. Here's hoping that any future incarnation of Choke City focuses on its comedic strengths and dispenses with the sleuthing.