by P.J. Grisar · October 23, 2013
Indie Artists on New Plays #14: P.J. Grisar looks at Eager To Lose playing at Ars Nova
Eager to Lose, the new burlesque farce playing through November 2nd at Ars Nova begins with a gratuitous bit of gratuity-giving. A tip jar called the “shimmy machine” is carted out downstage by a spangled showgirl--you can imagine what happens when you drop a dollar in and it doesn’t leave much to the imagination. Not to make it sound too salacious, but this is definitely not one for the kids, but certainly one that will stay with you. The team for Eager have their hands full reviving rhymed couplets a la Moliere, American music hall traditions and former Friends star David Schwimmer’s relevance. Together these ingredients result in a triumph, which though blended, is anything but mixed.
After ten minutes of titillating preshow the plot proper begins with the entrance of club owner, Tansy (played by the co-creator and choreographer of the same name) who announces her summary departure from this line of work to be with her new benefactor and lover—here’s where they have the first of many potshots at Schwimmer, said lover, who I hope was at least offered some comp seats.
But the heart’s a lonely hunter and Tansy’s real reason for leaving is fear of her feelings for the emcee (styled here as “MC”) and her own shortcomings with intimacy—don’t worry, she’s aware of the paradox. Of course these romantic stirrings are reciprocated by the MC, and of course, because the plot demands these people be too sheepish to speak directly to each other, they profess their love in letters which are delivered by inept or malicious couriers, fall into the wrong hands and are ultimately tampered with by Tansy’s squabbling heir apparents. Cross-dressing and eavesdropping are also on the bill--I needn’t go into the tropes of farce. Rest assured, short of slamming doors and ill-timed entrances, the play meets all the criteria. It’s funny, well-structured and filled to the brim with pop culture old and new. Nods to the Marx Brothers, big bands and Buster Keaton strut arm-in-arm with the Simpsons, Batman and Anthony Weiner.
It should be noted that Tansy is no poseur, riding the burlesque renaissance she is a major force in the art. Matthew Lee Erlbach‘s script is sharp, brisk and almost never just-approximate in rhyme or scansion. It succeeds in balancing the heightened and ribald with great dexterity. I will say, through no fault of Erlbach’s, the late entrance of the verse after a ten-minute ad-libbed overture is quite jarring. At first I thought it might just be Tansy’s schtick, since she’s the first one to speak this way and it only really starts up after her first appearance. The direction by co-creaters Wes Gramson and Portia Krieger endeavor and succeed to make all the disparate pieces fit together. Like the variety shows of old, we’re treated to just enough diversion to not lose sight of the plotting. The rock-solid ensemble juggle rhyming, pantomime and dance with incredible endurance. John Behlmanne’s slick-as-oil MC plays it arch but keeps our sympathy, Emily Walton’s sweet and green Glinda plays wonderfully next to Stacey Yen’s vampish malefactor, Trixie, and, my favorite, Richard Saudec’s “selectively mute” stagehand Peeps is a physical comedy dynamo that could go toe-to-toe with Harpo on his best day.
Tansy’s brilliantly choreographed burlesque numbers, ranging from nautical, to-not-quite PC Arabesque and, somehow, raccoon bandits, find the designers meeting, if not exceeding, some heavy production demands. I can just see the rehearsal reports now, requesting among other things: a two-foot long fish skeleton, two wearable boats (with rear propeller)--all rip-away, to a mid-show lighting gag cued off the tap of a cowbell. Brian Tovar delivers sumptuous lighting to Mark Erbaugh’s classic, half-shell proscenium; crushed velvet curtains transform Ars’ midtown space to the Tim-Tam club; costume designer Tilly Grimes gives us a divine, versatile and deceptively simple wardrobe and Noah Mease’s props bring the camp in a big way. Holding it all together, throughout is Cody Owen Stine’s stellar music direction, which gives us a swing-flavored survey of popular music from standards like “Has Anybody Seen My Gal” to They Might Be Giants’ “Constantinople.” The four-piecer, with Stine (on keys), drummer Ben Arons, bassist Chris Bastion and trumpeter Danny Jonokuchi, are tight as bands come, ready to drop an impromptu rim shot with impeccable comedic timing.
Eager continues a trend of Ars Nova-produced immersive theatre that shatters boundaries. Another well-known showgirl was once famously told “You gotta have a gimmick” and, certainly, this collaboration, with its diverse disciplines and talents, has yielded more than its share of those--but it’s a sell beyond novelty. Pure gimmickry could never be this affecting. Eager to Lose fills a very present need in today’s uniquely nostalgia-steeped climate, joining the old with the new and giving us something uniquely “now”.