Review: The Tremendous Tremendous

Daring company the Mad Ones invent a quirky, retro showbiz family.

BACKSTAGE DRAMA Thompson and Curnutte, center, relive their vaudeville moves.

BACKSTAGE DRAMA Thompson and Curnutte, center, relive their vaudeville moves. Photograph: Andrew Smrz

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

Most narratives describe a rising arc. We're so conditioned to that sense of a story moving upwards, building energy as it goes, that now the structure feels like an almost biological imperative. Inverting the pattern carries risks, so when The Mad Ones let The Tremendous Tremendous scoop instead of soar, the collective gambles with our attention. It's true, there are moments in the real-time portrait of a troupe at rest that feel very long, almost slack. But wait until the end, and you'll realize that all the little awkwardnesses, the seeming longeurs, have been carefully articulated in the service of a heartbreaking cumulative affect.

We start with a lovely bustle of activity. The traveling Abbotts, a company dressed in Pierrot-whiteface and baggy-pants clown costumes, rush into their cluttered dressing room. The actors are twittering with leftover adrenaline, having just finished their final performance at the 1939 World's Fair, and—judging by the hugging and jumping and self-congratulatory review-reciting—they nailed it. In the next 90 minutes, they rehash their performance (as actors do) while removing makeup and giving final-night gifts. Charlie (Joe Curnutte) can't believe he forgot the sword for his sword fight; Lu (Stephanie Wright Thompson) can't calm her postshow jitters. In the jumble of simultaneous conversations, we strain to hear hints of some recent loss—as the players wipe off their greasepaint, we glimpse physical hurts (Michael Dalto's bruiser Squid Abbott sports a black eye) and psychic pain that all the soft-shoe routines, piano playing and vaudeville bits cannot quite cover over.

The Mad Ones project is nostalgia—exploring it and creating it—and in an elegant marriage of form and content, The Tremendous Tremendous exists most sweetly in memory. Everything, even the performances, works backwards, so that Henry Vick, playing the group's gangly peacemaker, may start as a distractingly awkward presence but as the piece winds forward, he collects himself to become the piece's virtuosic guiding star. The desultory evening feels like a sail in becalmed waters. We feel breezes stirring (what has Lu done to make her so anxious? How did Charley lose his foot?), but they resolutely refuse to push us anywhere. Drifting and meditative, therefore, we grow almost painfully attuned to the eddies between characters. And when incident does make its abrupt, late-stage appearance, we find ourselves shaken and thinking back—suddenly nostalgic for what we've only just seen.

See more Theater reviews

The Brick (see listing). By Marc Bovino, Joe Curnutte and Stephanie Wright Thompson. Dir. Jeffrey Withers. With ensemble cast. 1hr 30mins. No intermission.