nytheatre.com review by Pun Bandhu
August 22, 2006
Americana Absurdum is the play that started it all. Originally directed by John Clancy, he and his company were planning to take the show to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland ten years ago and after calculating the costs, decided to co-produce a Fringe Festival here in New York instead. And thus history was made. If you, like me, have never seen this now legendary play by Brian Parks, make sure you see it before another ten years pass. It is a prime example of ingenious stagecraft and a testament to what a talented ensemble of actors can accomplish without special effects.
The performance is made up of two 50-minute plays. The first, Vomit and Roses, is about a family-run funeral parlor threatened by a takeover from corporate suits (and I use the word literally...the suits are on a hanger and played like puppets by Gary Upton Schwartz). The father (Matthew Boston) hires a sleazy lawyer by the name of Ermine Miami (Paul Urcioli, an original company member who directs this version faithfully based on Clancy's direction) and prepares to fight against the capitalists who dare to encroach on his own opportunistic ambitions and overblown pricing schemes. His wife (Deb Martin) is a non-sequitur-spewing, supportive but detached embalmer who waxes poetic about our beautiful "inner" life...the secrets that we keep in our pancreas, spleen and stomach. This is "Six Feet Under" before there was a Six Feet Under and the dark humor is grotesque but delicious...kinda like liver pate (sorry...truly sorry...I'm diving into non sequiturs myself. I can't get this play and its crazy world out of my head. Won't happen again).
The most interesting character is the daughter (Eva Van Dok), a shy, artistic girl who slides from locker to locker, waiting for the school bell to ring. She needs a date for the prom, and her brother Perth Amboy (played by original company member Jody Lambert), hooks her up with a hilariously unhinged army lieutenant with a decidedly unromantic view of life (Pete McCabe). Negotiations over the funeral parlor happen in the same hotel as the prom and madcap events unfold with Carrie-like proportions.
The second piece, Wolverine Dreams, follows the same lawyer, Ermine Miami, who is now defending an unsympathetic airline CEO from a lawsuit over a plane crash that killed all on-board save a taciturn and reluctant star witness, a wolverine. This act must have registered differently in a pre 9/11 world when airlines were rich and plane crashes weren't taboo subjects, but by this point in the play, you have come to expect this daring, so-wrong-it's-right level of humor that you are more than content to just sit back, grin, and enjoy the ride. This act is even zanier, not only with talking wolverines, but leprechauns, clowns, and dead golfers.
The nine-person ensemble goes through both acts at break neck speed with 60 mph machine-gun patter spraying puns, literary references, and occasionally, existential treatises on life, death, and commerce. The cast uses mimetic devices to become the necessary props (a human vacuum cleaner!), backdrop, and soundtrack to underscore this biting social satire of the American Dream. Most ingenious is the use of single light bulbs and flashlights that cast members focus on each scene, overlaying filters to convey dream sequences, flashbacks, etc. Who needs a lighting designer? Urcioli has done a great job of making sure each actor is in the same theatrical world. It is an example of what can be done with a barebones budget and limitless creativity, and everything a Fringe show should be. Don't miss it.