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Photograph: Dixie SheridanHysterical!

Fringe Festival 2016 reviews, Part I

Adam Feldman
Written by
Adam Feldman

The massive 2016 edition of the New York International Fringe Festival is up and running, which means it's time for our annual Fringe Binge. We'll be reviewing dozens of theater and dance shows at the Fringe this year. Here is our first batch of reviews.

RECOMMENDED: Full coverage of Fringe Festival NYC


First Time, Long Time
*** [three stars]
You know your geeky college buddy who had a radio show? Lock him in the DJ studio until the end of the world, and voila! You’ll have First Time, Long Time, written and directed by Jeremy Stuart. Stuart plays a radio talk-show host, Harland West, who fields calls exclusively from people in near-death situations: A man is about to be attacked by a bear; a woman watches as her town is buried by a flood; a man sees an atomic bomb explode outside his window, as his girlfriend sleeps beside him (she’ll sleep through anything!). West seems to have all the answers, calming his callers—all voiced by Malcolm Nicholas and Kathleen Fletcher—and providing them with both practical and existential advice. But although Stuart’s performance is charming and warm, West can only be enigmatic for so long before we begin to wonder about his own story—which, frustratingly, we never learn. Some of what he says—his Davy Crockett­–level knowledge of how to survive a bear encounter, or the way he unflinchingly tells a caller with frostbite to cut his own foot off—offers hints at the man behind the voice. In the end, though, one can’t help wishing that West would put down the microphone for a second and talk with us, or anyone, face to face.—Gabe Cohn

The Fucking Problem
*** [three stars]
Despite what you may have read online or in a brochure, there is no physical nudity in The Fucking Problem. Emotional nakedness? Sure: a bared soul here, a second of full-frontal id there. But such flashes do little to enhance or protect this slender two-hander, which could use extra layers of dramaturgy to clothe its skeletal premise. Two unnamed porn stars (Emily Alexander and Nate Dobson) take their dinner break during the day’s shoot, and use the time to explain in alternating, interwoven monologues how they got into the industry, how they draw boundaries between life and business and, eventually, how they’ve had a messy breakup. It would be complicated enough to negotiate sex between ex-lovers on a porn set; but the actor-writers throw in a James Deen–ish charge of sexual assault that she tweets about and he bitterly denies. What distinguishes rough sex between emotionally desensitized adult-film actors from plain rape? And how are consumers of porn complicit? These are valid dramatic questions, but the he-said-she-said format doesn’t bring them to the fore so much as double the noise and clichés. A third character’s outside perspective might have thrown the themes into high relief, or better writing would simply make the 60 minutes pass more pleasantly. Instead, we endure lame puns (“I’m fucking good at it. See what I did there? Fucking good at it”) and trite analogies to string along shallow psychological insights. These days, demystifying porn is no great achievement. Exploring the sadness and weirdness of sex as scarcity and commodity? That would be arousing.—David Cote

**** [four stars]
It’s a story we’re used to seeing on the big screen, from Bring It On to Mean Girls: The world of high-school girls is rife with frivolous feuds and petty drama, seemingly designed for cheap laughs and easy-viewing pleasure. It’s commendable, then, that a cast of five on a bare-bones stage could become such an effective vehicle for playwright Elenna Stauffer’s inspired-by-true-events tale of a cheerleading squad that falls victim to a mysterious “hysteria.” The disease, which manifests itself in Tourette-like tics and outbursts, starts with Mia (Samantha Debicki), an honors student who soon becomes the butt of the girls’ jokes—that is, until captain and senior Shannon (Haley Beauregard) also develops symptoms. As the Bandits’ set-in-stone pecking order begins to crack, it’s rising captain Charlotte (the captivating Nadia Brown) who steps up to console tearfully naive Maddie (Roxy Reynolds) and reprimand the frighteningly cold and unsympathetic Madison (Miranda Noelle Wilson) when they all become pariahs at school. But no good deed goes unpunished, as Charlotte becomes afflicted with an even more serious case that launches her into despair (and a powerfully emotional monologue). While low on athleticism, director-choreographer Deborah Wolfson’s spirit routines provide comic relief and help pep up the pace. The tics themselves may be humorous—Mia constantly repeats the group’s chant (“Hey, hey!”), Charlotte wails orgasmically—but there’s a dark undertone to the story, which touches on the fragility of youth’s fleeting friendships and the inherently stressful nature of adolescence. Hysterical! is your not average teen comedy, where gossip and popularity contests reign supreme. That’s something worth cheering about.—Dan Q. Dao

Pryor Truth
**** [four stars]
In the tiny basement theater Under St. Marks is hidden a rare gem of a show: Pryor Truth, a love letter to the legendary comedian Richard Pryor. The captivating Khalil Muhammad stars in a 90-minute solo show told through the perspective of Mudbone, one of Pryor's most beloved characters: an old would-be philosopher who spins tall tales, spitting and mumbling, and whose tipsy double vision often leads him to profound insight. In a rich Southern vernacular, Mudbone recalls the comedian's tormented childhood, rise to fame and battle with drugs, using humor to ease hard truths about racial conflict in America. Precise in both body and spirit, Muhammad brilliantly captures the essence of Pryor's most beloved creation; at times, there is an eerie feeling that Pryor himself is in the room. Hilarious and deeply personal, Pryor Truth provides an inspiring reminder of the need to fight for honesty within ourselves.—Di Zhu

Reagan's Athena
** [two stars]
There are very few laughs in Louis Varela Nevaer’s purported comedy Reagan’s Athena, a tale of diplomatic intrigue focusing on the talks between Jeane Kirkpatrick (Sharon Talbot)—who served as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in the early 1980s—and Nora Astorga (Keri Uribe), a dazzling emissary from Nicaragua who fought the United States at the International Court of Justice over U.S. support of her country’s rebel Contras. This underrehearsed piece is marred by sluggish pacing and lengthy expository scenes with secondary characters. Worse, the comedy it does mine is unfortunately vulgar, especially when it comes to the portrayal of Nancy Reagan, whom Kirkpatrick dismisses as the “blow job queen” of Hollywood. (Carol Kuykendal somehow manages to bring some grace to the role, even though at one point she tells Kirkpatrick to take the “dildo out of your ass.”) That’s a shame, because the scenes between Kirkpatrick and Astorga, in which they engage in “toilet diplomacy” in the ladies’ room of the U.N., have a great deal of potential.  These two very different women spar over politics, celebrity culture and Chanel in ways that are smart and exciting.  Perhaps Nevaer could refashion this as a two-hander, and flush the rest.—Rob Maitner

Till Birnam Wood…
*** [three stars]
Till Birnam Wood… is billed as a “blindfolded theatrical experience,” and it’s hard to know exactly what director John Schultz sees in this concept. The audience dons eye-blocking masks at the start of the show, then listens to what amounts to an hour-long audiobook of Macbeth, performed in surround sound. “Mine eyes are made the fools o' the other senses,” says the Scottish thane (Kevin Patrick McGuire) when he sees a ghostly dagger before him, but we see nothing, and our other senses are only fitfully engaged: There are sounds—the clanging of swords, the clinking of dinnerware, the scrubbing of hands—and a few piped-in smells (the Pine-Sol–scented air of the forest), but nothing by way of touch or taste. Although the text is delivered cleanly, especially by Ladies Macbeth (Jennifer Summerfield) and Macduff (Angela Smith), those who don’t already know Shakespeare’s play extremely well may find this version confusing and a little dull. Putting the spectators in sleep masks only exacerbates this problem. Though capably executed, the show is less Sleep No More than Maybe Take a Little Nap in the Middle.—Adam Feldman

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