Sprung to life

Vital Signs Series 4

Vital Theatre Company
432 West 42nd St. 3rd fl. (212/592-0129)
Equity showcase (closes May 11)
Review by Jenny Sandman

It appears Vital Theatre Company has saved the best for last in their festival of new works. While many of the plays in the previous three series were bland at best, the four plays in the last series are much funnier and much more insightful than their predecessors.

Toyland, by Al Sjoerdsma and directed by Gregory Thorson (with Michael Brandt, J.T. Patton, and Jennifer Stewart), is the most thought-provoking and inventive piece of the evening. Stylistically, it resembles Richard Maxwell; linguistically, it's almost Wellman-esque, especially in its subtle skewering of suburbanite culture. Funny and unpredictable, it traces the story of a typical suburban family after they acquire a new pet. Though named "Fluffy" by the boy, Chad, no one can figure out what Fluffy actually is. As the dad puts it, it's not a dog or a monkey or an eagle or a fish -- and it seems to like sitting on Chad's head a bit too much. Fluffy is actually eating Chad's brains, and he moves on to the rest of the family when Chad is thoroughly lobotomized. Kudos to Sjoerdsma for his sly, surprising writing, and to the uniformly excellent cast, who seemed to have mastered the art of comic timing.

Hazard of the Game, by Joyce Turiskylie and directed by Cynthia Thomas (with Michael Brandt, Nicole D'Incecco, and Zach McGowan) is about the strange dynamic between a couple, and its manifestation in a very strange game. Merle and Jack are attempting to make the other "scared, unnerved, or edgy"; each successful attempt earns the winner a point. The loser has to go to the funeral of a mutual friends -- who killed himself a few days earlier. As the game progresses, their friend Brian shows up with a totally different game. Eventually, Jack (who is losing) confesses the real reason he doesn't want to go to the funeral-that he himself attempted suicide some years earlier. It thoroughly explores the unusual dynamic between Merle and Jack, but moves slowly because its character examination is so painstaking.

In Mary Carpenter (written by Ernessa T. Carter, directed by Habib Azar, and featuring Napiera Danielle, Zachary Halley, and Ernest Lemon, Jr.), the story of Jesus's birth is given a rather unflattering twist. As a slick Southern preacher extols the virtues of Mary, a black Mary and Joseph argue heatedly about whether to tell the boy Jesus about his real parentage -- that he is not actually the son of God, that his parents cooked up that story to cover a pregnancy of uncertain origin and to protect Joseph's good name. It's an interesting take on a familiar story; the preacher provides a humorous element and breaks up the narrative, counterbalancing the potentially offensive elements.

The last piece, The Amazing Colossal Thing, by Rich Orloff (directed by David Hilder, with Tom Biglin, Susan G. Bob, Michael Gabiano, Peter Morris, Kim Reed, and Jennifer Wren), leaves subtle humor behind and is baldly, unabashedly funny. A janitor at a nuclear power plant "accidentally" leaves the fly unzipped on his protective suit, and ends up with a three-foot, constantly erect penis. And this is the least of his problems -- his parents are oppressing him, his girlfriend left him, and his doctor used to be the star quarterback in high school. But he's able to transcend his, er, difficulty and realize the value of self-respect. Fortunately, the actors played up the physical humor to the hilt, ending the evening on a jolly note.

The various ensembles were practiced and engaging; the direction relied more on character relationships than on space issues (as in previous series). Vital Theatre Company has unearthed some great talent during this season's festival of new works; hopefully, both VTC and their discoveries will receive the attention they deserve.

Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 1
Acting: 2
Sets: 1
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2003 Jenny Sandman