Orange Lemon Egg Canary
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
July 12, 2006
The title of this play by Rinne Groff describes a neat magic trick: an orange is peeled to reveal a lemon within, and when the lemon peel is removed, an egg is discovered inside. The egg is crashed to the floor, it cracks, and a canary flies up from the wreckage.
There's a delightful, colorful canary nested inside Groff's overly complex play, too; but the stuff she's put around it—far from being magical—only serves to distract from the potent tale that she might have told.
Orange Lemon Egg Canary is about a magician named Mike, whose stage name is Great, and his relationship with a young woman named Trilby who coaxes him, against his better judgment, into teaching her some of the secrets of his trade. Great's previous assistant, a woman named China (except she says her name is Egypt), apparently suffered physical harm when she performed the climactic trick of their act, in which she appeared to be impaled on a spike; Great and China/Egypt were also lovers, and she may be attempting a neat revenge on her ex. Trilby, meanwhile, is seeing a ghost—the spirit of Henrietta, Great's grandfather's assistant and sometime lover, who apparently died while performing the same dangerous trick.
Layered around this story is a fitful examination of truth vs. illusion. Great's patter, in his magic act, is Penn-and-Teller-esque in its self-referentialness, almost daring us to see how the tricks are done, even as it skillfully distracts us. Does the essential nature of magic—an audience's willingness to accept what it sees, even when it knows can't be true—somehow jive with the essential nature of love? Groff tries to make the case, but this is the weakest and least interesting aspect of Orange Lemon Egg Canary, and this metaphysical meditation just falls flat.
Groff's presence is too pervasive in the play; she's simply trying too hard: for example, naming the main characters Great and Trilby is just unnecessary. But the central plotline concerning Great and his lady friends is compelling and smart, even if a bit far-fetched in places. When Groff lets them do their stuff organically, the play is engaging and entertaining.
The presence of actor-magician Steve Cuiffo in the central role of Mike/Great is an enormous asset to the production. Cuiffo is a terrific magician, as he proves in a pre-show demonstration of his prowess, during which he does card and coin tricks for folks in the audience, up-close and intimate, to pretty much everybody's amazement. He's an equally fine actor, and his charismatic, likable presence anchors the play nicely. Emily Swallow (as Henrietta's ghost), Aubrey Dollar (as Trilby), and Laura Kai Chen (Egypt) all register as much less pleasant, making their characters' objectives (which I think coincide with the playwright's) harder to root for.
The impaling-the-lady-on-the-spike illusion is darned impressive.
Michael Sexton's staging is brisk, if a bit unemotional; he uses all of the corners of the broad P.S. 122 upstairs space, which sometimes means you can't see who's talking to you—that's a bit of a distraction. There were also a couple of places in the show when I was looking at stuff on the sidelines and missed something cool that was happening on stage. The design elements are all top-notch.
Cuiffo is a consummate entertainer, and he's worth seeing here (and looking for elsewhere). Groff is a talented playwright, but maybe she needs to stop working so hard to prove it, and instead let the bright, unexpected canary that she's surrounded with a playwright's trickery soar all by itself.