Monday, August 12, 2013

The wonders of the FringeNYC selection process

My friend Valerie invited me along to see a Fringe Festival show that she had been assigned to review for Timeout New York. And I have to say, those involved with the show, PERFECTLY NORMEL PEOPLE should be thanking their lucky stars that Valerie was assigned the review and not someone like me, who has a much lower tolerance for the hackneyed and the cheezy. She thought it was "cute." I thought it was like watching a bunch of Youtube cat videos in a nursing home - the crass doufus audience full of old people laughed at every played-out, tired joke, especially the woman behind me, who, even after the tenth time the dumb-guy character replaced one word with another, because he's so stupid, still screamed with laughter, forcing me to listen yet again to her rasping smoker's cackle.

In assembling the festival, Ms. Holy said, quality is just one consideration. Diversity is also important: it means not only trying to get a mix of ages, experience, geography and points of view...
Quality is a consideration? Really? Did anybody read this play before selecting it? It's an unholy synthesis of third-rate Neil Simon and 1970s sitcom gags. 

The play is a reminiscence by a (fictional) writer, of his youth in the early 1980s during which he lived with an Italian family in Queens while attending NYU. His name is Hadley but a couple of the Italians decide to call him Lefty, and the older women characters in the play are so stupid that they never figure out that "Lefty" is his nickname. At the end of the play, when he is referred to as Lefty they are still asking "who's Lefty?" The audience found this hysterically funny, of course.

At first I thought the play was set in the 1960s until a character in the third scene mentions President Reagan because:
  • The actor cast as the narrator had to be at least in his 60s. I was in college in the early 1980s and nobody I know who is my age looks as old as this guy. 
  • The first scene is down on a family farm in Kansas, and Ma and Pa seemed like they were straight out of the Grapes of Wrath.
  • In the the second scene Hadley shows up in NYC and is immediately mugged.
  • The third scene features a character named "Rainbow" who is dressed like a hippie. An utterly pointless character who has five lines and then we never see her again. 
In fact, even though the main character is a college student, we never see him at college, ever. The entire play except for the first three scenes and the last is set in the Italian family's house.

Now I'm not saying that you can't do a play about some writer's zany younger days, but you should at least try to be a little original about it, instead of recycling every hackneyed scenario and trope. In one scene Hadley and one of the Italian family's cousins are falling in love on the porch swing. They say nothing interesting in the scene - it's a completely standard "young people falling in love" set-up. But it still isn't pedestrian enough for the playwrights (a husband and wife team) and they have to have the narrator pop up yet again and tell us in the clunkiest "poetic" language possible about how he and the cousin were falling in love. You know, in case we didn't get it by watching the scene.

At the end of the play the cousin shows up, all grown up (although still played by the actor who played the young woman even though the narrator is played by two different actors) to a book signing by the narrator. It's apparent they haven't seen each other in a long time - but the play doesn't explain why they ended their relationship in the first place. You would think that would be a pretty important issue to deal with, in a reminiscence of youth. But the play has no time for this because it needs time for all the tired old gags.

And the narrator device was not only badly used, I wasn't even sure at first the narrator was played by an actor. He was so bad I thought (before I looked at the playbill) that he was the author of the play we were watching and insisted on playing the narrator too.

But the absolute worst aspect of this play was that the Italian grandfather has been mysteriously struck deaf and dumb for the past three years, and then he accidentally reveals to Hadley that he's been faking it.

The only fallout of him being such an asshole - or alternatively, of the people he lives with being so incredibly horrible that his only response (other than to move out) is to stop speaking to them completely - is that he says "I guess I shouldn't have done that" and they all go "aw that's OK Granpaw, thanks for re-asserting your patriarchal imperative, since everything went to hell when we let women run things around here."

I paraphrased that last line, but that's basically the message. And given how stupid the older women are (who's Lefty?) in the world of this play I guess it makes sense. 

And then they all learn lessons about The Importance of Family and We Should Not Be Mean To Each Other.

And one more thing - I'm pretty sure that a character mentions that Frank Sinatra is up in heaven. The play is set in the early 1980s. Frank Sinatra died in 1998.

On the plus side, the production's actors were mostly good, especially the actors who played the young people, and especially Patrick Arnheim who was freaking amazing and managed to give as much dimension as possible to a thankless ethnic stereotype of a role.

I've been to the Philadelphia Fringe Festival (my first play production was part of it one year) and I've been to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and I saw quite a bit of crap at both of those. But they did not have a selection process, so they have an excuse. But according to the article cited above:
Around 70 to 80 FringeNYC jurors are recruited each year; this year’s range in age from their teens to their 70s, and in experience from scientist to Broadway house manager. Some have been festival participants or interns. Others came to Ms. Holy’s attention by referral. They undertake a complex and time-intensive process of reading, ranking and reporting back to a panel that makes the final decisions.
Why do they bother? I can't see how a lottery would yield anything worse than the crap shows (and this one is certainly not the only one I've seen) that are included in FringeNYC. 

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