by Matt Roberson · August 15, 2014
FringeNYC is a mixed bag. Shows by all types of people, from all kinds of places. It’s why we love it. But surprisingly, the two shows I saw on Sunday had a lot in common. Both were comedies set in New York. Both were stories of conflict and combat. Both did, at times, get weird. Where they differed, however, is that only one is ready for a festival as admired and acclaimed as FringeNYC.
First, the good: you need to see Victor Verhaeghe’s expertly crafted musical comedy The Doormen. Set in the lobbies of adjoining luxury condos, it follows the battle of two doormen - seasoned vet versus young upstart - as they fight to claim that job’s highest honor. In the role of puppet master is the exceptionally masculine Bryce Dallas Howard (Castor Pepper), who owns both buildings and finds “adult” enjoyment in watching her employees squirm.
The story is slim but clear, and strong enough to bond the rapid-fire succession of bits, genres, and wild ideas making up this thrilling hour of theatre. Slow-motion kung fu, break dancing, sketchy film sequences, 1950s instructional video-style speeches, and one great song that could have as easily been written by Jack Black’s Tenacious D.
Rarely does this “kitchen sink” mash-up approach to comedy pay off. Normally, jokes get drowned out by other jokes, timing gets lost, and along with it whatever heartbeat the story may be able to offer. But not here. Verhaeghe has crafted this play perfectly. The writing is fresh and hilarious, the bits are timed right, and not once does our attention drift from the earnest and engaging lead characters.
And the cast only makes things better. As the doormen, Victor Verhaeghe and Joe Boover, who co-wrote the music, have an electric chemistry that’s impossible to miss. They’re also very skilled comedians, showing all shades of emotion and feeling without ever going “over the top.” The same can’t be said for Pepper, who is too campy when playing Ron Howard’s daughter. But as Corntooth, civilization’s first doorman, Pepper redeems himself, showing off a hilarious blend of sweet and strange.
Keeping it all together and moving towards a satisfying conclusion is Rachael Harrington’s direction. The Doormen has a lot of moving parts, each threatening to turn this great script into an okay live experience. Harrington, though, never lets this happen, opting for the smooth touch, with just the right amount of guidance and thoughtful blocking.
Oh, had there only been as strong and skilled of hand guiding Alex McFarlane’s Birds Should Fly Free. Like The Doormen, McFarlane calls on a variety of devices. There’s puppets. Comedic news anchors. Kangaroo cab drivers. There’s even audience participation when entering the space. But without a clear and compelling story, the whole picture resembles a loose collage of “good ideas” that I found hard to enjoy.
The play revolves around Alex, a hyper-intelligent talking parrot who, sick of humans, sets his eyes on becoming president. Standing between Alex and the White House are a series of characters, whom he uses to advance his agenda before tossing aside like the newspaper that lines his cage.
Had this play stopped with Act 1, McFarlane may have had something. The parrot’s back story and intentions unfold nicely, and the relationship between a wealthy developer and his boy-toy protege - aided by the fun work of Richard Fisher and Anthony Ritosa - moves in an original direction. But then Act 2 arrives, and with it an albatross of a scene involving the bird, his lawyer Maude, a GOP advisor, and at least four attempts to make us laugh at the line “You prick...I mean parrot.” Whatever momentum the play had left at this point is killed, making it hard to care about what happens next.
Equally disappointing in Act 2 is the performance of Joseph Garner, the voice and puppeteer for Alex. I say this because in Act 1, Garner is very interesting and engaging, breathing precise and thoughtful life into the beautiful puppet designed by James Wojtal Jr. As the play progresses though, Garner is increasingly animated and over the top, at one point gesticulating with his own hands instead of using the wings he’s supposed to be controlling. This overshadowing doesn’t ruin the play, but it does spoil what could have been a memorable performance for Garner.
With over 200 offerings at this year’s festival, it’s a given that most are not yet worthy of a life beyond the Fringe. In my case though, I feel lucky to have seen one that is. The Doormen, with this director and these leads, deserves not only a future, but a bright one.