Upon entering the spacious converted high school auditorium where Cafe Society, by Robert Simonson, was playing, the first thing heard coming from the loudspeakers was a jazzy vocal version of a Baroque orchestral piece. While groups such as the King's Singers still perform in this style, this type of recording seems more out of a different time; specifically the mid- to late-1960s, when jazzing up sleepy old classics was hip, and there were plays and TV shows about new girls in town meeting quirky New York people in crazy New York places. While Cafe Society is not completely from another time (its characters don't meet at the Cafe Au Go-Go, but rather at a Lincoln Center-area coffee bar called the Voulez Vous Cafe), it has more then a few qualities of the That Girl era.
The plot concerns Karen, a mid-20s woman who works as a program editor at Lincoln Center. Every morning she buys an iced capuccino at Voulez Vous; and one day the fifteen-year-old counter girl, Lucy (who is also the owner's daughter) asks Karen to be her friend. Lucy then invites Karen to a party at her parents' apartment, and, amazingly, Karen goes, accompanied by her wise-cracking friend Stacey. At the party they meet three of Lucy s other "friends," all of whom she approached at the cafe. Most importantly, however, Karen meets Sean, a hunky Secret Service agent who is guarding Lucy's cousin Roald, a paranoid children's-book author who has had a Fatwa placed upon him by the late Ayatollah Khomeini.
Cafe Society is the type of play that once was a Broadway staple, but now is rarely seen anymore, either on stage, film, or even television What makes it watchable, however, is that some of the writing is quite funny. This is especially the case in the party scene in Act One, and in the nightclub scene in Act Two, when Lucy accuses Karen of being a bigot, an ageist, and a classist. Unfortunately, the writing is generally uneven, and by the end of the piece, when the play takes a dark turn, it seems as if a different play is being performed than the one that began the evening.
The production by the Manhattan Playhouse was quite good. Well-staged by Alkis Papoutsis, and attractively designed by Jessica Kibel, Sophie Jackson, Andris Kasparovics, and Nicole Hignite, the evening never dragged. The performers were fine all around. Jen Celene Little was attractive and believable as Karen. Marisa Tomei-lookalike Jill Abramovitz was appropriately surly as Stacey. Jacqueline Lucid was appropriately nutty as the off-center Lucy. And Scott Bowman was completely believable as the handsome Agent Sean. (Also featuring Ron McClary, Douglas Scadron Stone, Bruce Racond, Leyna Juliet Weber, and Bill Van Horn.)
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Copyright 1998 John Attanas