Monster(less) Actors has just raised the bar for Off-Off-Broadway theater. The OOBR Award-winning company's production of The After-Dinner Joke was a near-flawless melding of talents, including some--such as dialects and comic timing--that are Off-Off-Broadway bugaboos. In all the details that typically betray an OOB company's lack of funds and sophistication, Monster(less) put forth a first-rate effort that would unlikely be surpassed by a commercial production.
The company's first great move was unearthing this gem by Caryl Churchill, the British playwright of Top Girls and Cloud Nine fame. The After-Dinner Joke was performed for BBC television in 1978 but never produced on stage until now. It revolves around a young woman's quest "to do good" in her career--good, that is, in the altruistic rather than financial sense. But young Miss Selby soon discovers that the non-profit sector is not immune to the corruption that soured her on the corporate world. This clash between idealism and reality keeps the 20-year-old play timely, as it parallels the national debate over a president whose public and private codes of decency are obviously in conflict. Thus, Monster(less) has revived a work that is as intelligent as it is entertaining.
And what superlative entertainment it was! Fast-paced, expertly designed and wickedly funny, The After-Dinner Joke unfolded like a long comedy sketch, or a series of overlapping sketches. No sooner, for instance, does Miss Selby announce that for the cost of a car a consumer could pay for cows to nourish scores of children, than a character walks into a car dealership and drives off with a herd of (miniature toy) cows. Although Churchill obviously disdains the compassionless Conservatives, she pokes fun at bleeding-heart liberalism with irreverent scenes of such charitable deeds as walkathons and parents invoking "hungry Indians" to get their children to eat. The props and staging of these vignettes added to their hilarity. Every aspect of the production was impeccably conceived and executed, beginning with the set--10-foot-high stacks of file boxes and reams of paper--and concluding with the musical curtain call.
Under the shrewd, imaginative direction of Victoria Pero and Marcus Geduld, The After-Dinner Joke looked good and moved well. From their busy ensemble of 10 (attired in business suits), the directors elicited vivid group tableaux--of frantic office employees and screaming rock fans--as well as amusing individual characterizations. The English accents were convincing, and the sight gags (including people virtually popping out of file cabinets) were successful. The actors with single roles were excellent too: Lisa Blankenship as earnest Miss Selby, Fred Burrell as her smug boss, and Matt Frederick as a bespectacled co-worker with a snake fetish.
(Also featuring Jeff Biehl, Juniper Berolzheimer, Amy Casey, Jennifer Costello, Mark Ellmore, Tom Epstein, Ahron R. Foster, Erich Jungwirth, Erin O'Leary, J. Max Sullivan and Eric Radford Weiss. Sets, George Xenos; costumes, Chris Field; lighting, Chris Dallos; sound, Antonio Garfias; technical direction, Roy Ballard; dialect coach, Stephen Gabis.)
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Copyright 1998 Adrienne Onofri