by Ron Cohen · August 13, 2014
I didn’t see the well-received 2007 documentary movie The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. but I’m grateful to it if for no other reason than that it inspired a take-off on it. It‘s a show that‘s considerably upping the hilarity quotient at the New York International Fringe Festival. Bearing the forthright title King of Kong: A Musical Parody, the show was written by and is being performed with grand zest by two ladies blessed with bountiful comedy chops, Amber Ruffin and Lauren Van Kurin.
The story concerns a battle for the championship crown to be won for playing the venerable video arcade game Donkey Kong. Ruffin, decked out with a beard and peculiarly coifed hair, portrays Billy Mitchell, the long-time high-scorer, a vainglorious winner with some shifty tactics. Van Kurin, with her blond hair in a boyish cut, is Steve Wiebe, a perpetual but antic loser in life, who practices up, playing the game in his garage while unemployed. His hope is to topple Mitchell and get his name into the Guiness Book of World Records. The Guiness tome, he tells us several times, is his favorite book. And he does become a formidable competitor.
Presumably with some insights from Brendan Hunt, the male at the director’s helm, the two female performers have a grand old time teasing masculine foibles and mannerisms. They are both masters of the oblique gag: taking a phrase or sentence that isn’t inherently funny and making it sound like a punch line. Furthermore, with the aid of some fast in-the-wings costume and wig changes, they have the opportunity to limn several other characters.
Donning a long black siren-like wig and hugging mini dress, Van Kurin is totally unrecognizable as Mitchells’ bubble-headed wife. The singing and dancing TV commercial she makes with Mitchell for his hot sauce business is one of the show’s several terrific set pieces. Similarly, with the beard gone and a wig of different hue, Ruffin transforms splendidly into Wiebe’s understanding wife, and then with a baseball cap she becomes his young son.
The songs in the show, with music by David Schmoll and accompaniment on prerecorded tracks, are comic gems. Often they expand into minuscule production numbers that gleefully kid the clichés of Broadway choreography. And while bounding about the stage, sometimes with great comic ineptitude, the two performers are also able to project the lyrics, with bon mots that get laughs as easily as the spoken dialogue. One of my favorites comes when Wiebe, giving life lessons to his young son, tries to explain away his inability to build a steady career: “A failure,” he says, “is just a success that you failed to succeed at.”
I don‘t know if that line came originally from the movie, but if it did, credit Ruffin and Van Kurin for realizing its sublime ridiculousness and giving it a featured spot in their delicious confection of a parody.