Like a cynically observant fly on the wall, J. Holtham keenly dissects contemporary New Yorkers with a humor so dark that his new work, the sardonically titled Isle of Joy, becomes the corrosive flip side to all of those sunny musical valentines to the city created by Comden and Green in the '40s and '50s.
Like that legendary duo's first hit, the wartime On The Town, Isle of Joy takes place all over Manhattan (with a foray into Brooklyn) in the course of 24 hours. But unlike that youthful paean to romance and optimism in a time of crisis, Holtham paints a bleak picture of self-indulgent, self-important young New Yorkers trapped in a war of urban isolation so twisted that any hope of a real connection with another human being becomes a pipe dream belonging to another era. This is strong stuff, and even the faintly hopeful ending, as a seemingly mismatched couple on a blind date tentatively reach out to each other, barely softens the bitterness that has preceded it.
Holtham has a fine ear for the conversational rhythms of the city, and he perfectly captures the sense of entitlement so prevalent among the young, upwardly mobile residents of New York. Therefore it was a shame that Dap Ensemble's bare bones production, directed with a heavy hand by Codie K. Fitch, could barely keep up with the sharply energetic writing. While it is somewhat of a theatrical cliché to say that there is a typically "New York style" of show, in this case, with a script so rooted in the attitudes, vexations, and mores of life in the Big Wormy Apple circa 2001, the lack of a glib sophistication in the staging and performances gave the evening much more weight than it needed or deserved. The writing was strong enough to convey the serious themes without the addition of serious "acting" and over-conceptualized direction. There were some clever ideas floating around (particularly the scene changes, which took some well-aimed jabs at the MTA) and a few fine turns by ensemble members Cherita A. Armstrong, Ethan Aronoff, and Kurt Michaels, but nevertheless the desultory air of a hazy, hot, and humid New York in July took precedence over the cool fresh breeze of Holtham's darkly humorous gathering storm.
(Also featuring: Caitlin Barton, Stephanie Bubnis, Katie Corrado, Brian Houtz, Jesse Weinstein. Lighting by Brian Massolini, sets and costumes uncredited.)
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Copyright 2001 Doug DeVita