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Fringe Festival 2016 reviews, Part IV

Adam Feldman
Written by
Adam Feldman

The best thing about the Fringe Festival is that it includes so many productions: There are nearly 200 in this year's 20th annual edition of the fest. But that can also make it very hard to find the ones most worth seeing. Today we continue our long march of Fringe coverage with reviews of seven shows, including a few we strongly recommend. Check back soon for more.

RECOMMENDED: Full coverage of Fringe Festival NYC

**** [four stars]
The closely bonded title characters of ChipandGus are misfits who meet once a month in a bar for a few rounds of table tennis. The set consists of a ping pong table and the space around it. Balls are smartly struck and ricochet off the table to accent the duo’s rapid-fire repartee. Writer-director-performers Christopher Patrick Mullen and John Ahlin are seasoned actors who know how to deftly reveal character, all while keeping their ball in play. Chip (Mullen) is a down-on-his luck ex-academician turned composer, with too many women in his life; Gus (Ahlin) is a college professor with an anxiety disorder and too few women. Together, they quaff beer, swing their paddles, crack jokes and resolve long-held resentments with humor, wit and pathos. ChipandGus is bright, funny and cathartic: an emotionally resonant buddy comedy for thinking audiences. As the banter accelerates, so does the game.—Laura Heller


The Coward: A Madcap Fairy Tale
** [two stars]
Your classic clowns are goofs of few words. But the whiteface loons in The Coward never stop gabbing—which is especially unfortunate, given their manic, crushingly dull dialogue. Talky clowns: not a recipe for belly laughs. Energetic but scattershot to the point of tedium, this 90-minute farce follows the fortunes of Willie (Maddy Campbell), a skittish but loyal maid to the King (Wester Cooley), a gloomy monarch literally chained to his throne. Willie is possessed by a monster, murders her liege, and embarks on a journey of redemption to resurrect him. The principal villain in this dark, frenetic fable is Demon Queen Gregory (Matt Phillips), a campy sadist who gets the best costume changes. The Coward is a confusing, overwritten picaresque with metaphysical pretensions and a drawn-out WTF downer ending, barely salvaged by the ensemble’s youthful enthusiasm. Playing a sardonic Colonel Sanders–like deity called Mr. Crow, Laurel Andersen does little more than wear a penciled moustache and smile mockingly in the background. Her silent witness is more compelling than the strenuous mugging, running and shouting around her.—David Cote

Honour: Confessions of a Mumbai Courtesan
**** [five stars]
Rani is a bright teenage girl in Mumbai: playful, dreamy, rebellious and desperate to escape what seems to be her destiny in the sex trade. But her mother, Chameli, is determined that her daughter carry on the family tradition. We meet them during the days leading up to Rani’s professional unveiling in writer-performer Dipti Mehta’s beautiful and devastating Honour: Confessions of a Mumbai Courtesan. What kind of mother could choose this for her daughter? A ferocious mama lion, who was sold by her own parents at 13 and who is trying to give her daughter the best life possible considering her limited choices. All five of the play’s characters—they span a range of age, accents and genders—are wondrously portrayed by Mehta, who uses monologue and dance to guide us through their world of plans made and deals struck. Even as it invites the audience to take a hard look at the life of sex workers, Honour seems to stare back at us, as though to ask, “Hey, American, does this make you uncomfortable?” You bet it does, and we’re the better for it.—Roberta Lipp

Love Me Forever Billy H. Tender
*** [three stars]
This portrait of a singer’s dysfunctional family takes place in the future, and it’s not clear why. At best, it’s an excuse for running gags, some of them amusing, about what today’s celebrities will be doing five years from now. Solo writer-performer Jesse LaVercombe plays Canadian pop star–turned–folk warbler Billy H. Tender, his elusive mother Stella and his nerdy, desperate brother Hal. The primary focus is on Hal, a troubled shut-in who lives on crumbs of attention he gets from his brother and mother, both of whom ignore his phone calls; LaVercombe captures the essence of Hal’s worship of Billy in the religious zeal with which he pronounces, “He’s rebranding.” In spite of his aquiline beauty—he resembles a young Meryl Streep—the actor struggles to personify the mother, the least coherent character. (The play might be improved by rewriting or even eliminating the role.) But LaVercombe slips more easily into the role of Billy, a vain, rebellious celebrity trying to break out of his mold; it’s a relief when LaVercombe demonstrates the song-and-dance talent that made Billy famous. There’s a lot going on in this intense show, from a predictable mental-breakdown arc to a critique of social media and some awkward audience-participation phone-sex banter—as well as diverting folk songs that start out charming and then turn creepy. It doesn’t quite add up, but it’s enough to make your wonder where LaVercombe might be in five years.—Remy Holzer

Lunt and Fontanne: The Celestials of Broadway
** [two stars]
Actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne reigned over Broadway for decades, and were dubbed “the Celestials” by Laurence Olivier. Neurotic Midwesterner Lunt and English grande dame Fontanne seemed to have little in common aside from acting, but they remained a team, both on and off stage, for more than 50 years. In Mark W. Lang’s bioplay, Alison Murphy is lovely and expressive as Fontanne; Lang, her real-life husband, captures Lunt’s insecurities without demonstrating the great charisma he must have had. In this cleverly staged and costumed two-hander, directed by Owen Thompson, the stars occasionally take on extra roles, allowing Lang to perform some mildly amusing impressions. (His Olivier is better than his Noël Coward; his version of the famously erudite Irving Thalberg seems more like a Chicago gangster.) The play’s most absorbing scenes show them in preparation for their stage roles: A rehearsal of The Taming of the Shrew turns into an erotic tussle; preparations for S.N. Behrman’s I Know My Love reveal the aging couple’s faltering confidence. But Lang’s script is burdened with clichés and clumsy exposition. To say, “On that fateful day, our lives changed forever,” is silly; to say it about the (uneventful) wedding day of a famous couple is unpardonable. It makes one long for a play that captured the vitality of the Lunts, rather than reducing them to talking exhibits in a theater museum.—Remy Holzer

The Princemaker
** [two stars]
In Robert Gelberg’s political two-hander, Leslie Moore (Ian Bouillion) is an 18-year-old who has inherited his father’s wealth, making him a teen millionaire. Leslie's father was famous for funding politicians and never losing an election; the spoiled and volatile kid joins the family business by backing congressman George Lee (Carey Seward) for President. Complicating matters, Leslie can’t help playing mind games on George. Some of the jokes land nicely, especially the pop-culture references, and Bouillion handles his millennial-Mamet dialogue well. But Leslie’s rashness and aggression seem weakly motivated; it’s also unclear why Leslie selects George, and why the candidate continues to accept money from a narcissistic child who generates more pain than electoral success. The Princemaker has an interesting premise that would benefit from greater psychological depth. For now, at least, it doesn’t get my vote.—Amelia Bienstock

Walken on Sunshine
**** [four stars]
In this appealingly frenetic comedy, a squad of wannabe filmmakers, hoping to secure funding, pretend they’ve landed Christopher Walken to star in their indie flick. Before we go on: How is star Dave Droxler’s Walken impression, trotted out to frequent effect? Uncanny. He’s nailed down. The odd. Pauses? And added top notes of Pennies from Heaven and grumbly undercurrents of Catch Me If You Can. That wouldn’t be enough for a play—or a movie, as even Walken’s hardcore fans know—but Droxler’s script is built on a sturdy if familiar dramatic structure, swiping ably from Steve Martin’s satiric Bowfinger and The Jerk. A pretty young thing in glasses (Maggie Carr) inspires Droxler’s timid dreamer to be bold, while his crew maintains the ruse. A wealthy cat-food magnate (Paul Pakler) is charmed, but a corporate toady (Jonathan Spivey) smells a rat. Supplying their own sound effects and occasional flashlight spots, the manic cast is fully committed to the silliness, staying one step ahead of their verbal rush. Some tangents are inspired, such as a touching lament sung by a self-described asshole, while others are exhausting: Let out your inner Walken? Whatever. But this play’s got just enough cowbell for 90 minutes.—Joshua Rothkopf



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