Clubbed Thumb mounts its 20th annual new-works festival, one of the best ways to see which local playwrights have had their digits whacked with the talent hammer. The final offering is Jaclyn Backhaus's gender-bending river adventure, Men on Boats.
Men on Boats: Theater review by Christopher Kompanek
Jaclyn Backhaus’s Men on Boats, the final offering of Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks Festival, follows one-armed captain Powell (Kelly McAndrew) and his men as they chart the course of the Colorado River in 1869, risking their lives to name mountains that have been inhabited by native tribes for thousands of years. As the play opens, the crew is navigating a particularly challenging section of the river, in tiny boats that require frequent portage. Powell's right-hand man, William (Kristen Sieh), provides contrasting skepticism to the captain’s bravado as the journey wears them down and their future grows uncertain.
Broadly drawn and thinly plotted, Men on Boats lampoons outsize masculinity in general and arrogant colonialism specifically. The cast, which includes no cisgender males, uses teamwork to build speed, creating a well-oiled machine helmed by director Will Davis. But the waters they navigate are shallow. Backhaus’ blunt dialogue, often just a notch above grunting and shouting, alternately portrays the men as Neanderthals and little boys. While this garners laughs, it undermines the play; we never get to see the characters as more than setups and punch lines. Backhaus’s compassion for her characters seems in shorter supply than the expedition team’s dwindling rations.—Christopher Kompanek
The Wild Project (Off-Off Broadway) By Jaclyn Backhaus. Directed by Will Davis. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr30mins. No intermission. Through June 29.
Card and Gift: Theater review by Helen Shaw
Kate E. Ryan's melancholic Card and Gift takes place in a New Hampshire store where small-town malaise is approaching Beckettian proportions. What, exactly, is being sold in this sad, undersupplied and overstaffed gift shop? There are some flags, some wind-up novelties, a lonely model of a Greyhound bus on an unreachable shelf above the door. But no one ever seems to buy anything, and the workers would all be better off if they got out.
Card and Gift is like a modern La Brea tar pit, trapping various species of American woman so that a scientifically curious audience can examine them at leisure. The types: one-time artist and lost soul Lila (Mia Katigbak), in her 50s, trying to run her parents' store in a resort town that fun forgot; her friend and daffy employee Annette (Connie Ray), who dreams of helping a candidate into the White House; and Shana (Ella Dershowitz), an exaggeratedly awful up-talking millennial, so entitled and dependent that she solicits help in cutting out paper dolls. Ryan's characterizations can be cruel, and both Dershowitz and Ray respond with broad, funny portrayals. Katigbak, though, seems sunk in grief that seems simultaneously personal and existential.
Ryan's take on the “pushed realism” genre (see Annie Baker’s The Flick) can be a little too arch; her approximation of a dull day in retail can, despite the play's brief scenes, sometimes drag. But fired into this crowd like a wacky Roman candle comes Laura Esterman, a giggling zany with razor-blade eyes. Is she one character or two? The program gives her two names, yet she plays a similar trickster both times—a nasty seatmate at a bus stop and a seemingly cheery customer who turns into an admonishment from Lila's past.
In the play's best scene, Esterman careers into the shop, demanding one of Lila's old paintings; Lila, terrified, hides her face in the shadows. (Here, lighting designer Les Dickert goes full noir to great effect.) Director Ken Rus Schmoll and the other designers have interpolated moments of nightmare strangeness into the production, but this one scene reverberates in uncanny ways. Ryan is sketching different iterations of the American fantasist—incompetent Shana dreams of saving people; unworldly Annette dreams of a President who would be a reflection of herself. But it's Lila's lost dream that the piece seems to understand best: the dream of an artist no longer making art but reluctant to be forgotten.—Helen Shaw
The Wild Project (Off-Off Broadway). By Kate E. Ryan. Directed by Ken Rus Schmoll. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 10mins. No intermission. Through June 14.
D Deb Debbie Deborah: Theater review by Helen Shaw
Most of the time, the tiptoeing critic can avoid spoilers: You hint at plot without telling who dies; you don't give away the 11th-hour coup de théâtre. But what to do when a thriller puts its best, most surprising scene in its first 15 minutes? The only option is to get a bit…vague. Let me hasten to add that this review will be the most positive vague I can manage, since Jerry Lieblich's D Deb Debbie Deborah boasts moments of slippery gorgeousness, some of which have to be seen to be believed. Yet exactly how he and expert director Lee Sunday Evans manipulate our understanding of identity should probably remain a mystery, perhaps even to we who have seen the show.
The titular Deb (deft, hilarious Brooke Bloom) has just started a new job. After some uncanny experiences at home—an intercom conversation turns eerie, her boyfriend (Nick Choksi) seems unfamiliar—she finds herself working for a famous artist (Geoff Sobelle), helping him with a project based in imitation and re-creation. The project eats up her time, then it seems to eat up the play itself: Sobelle and Choksi repeatedly exchange roles, and even Deb herself frays existentially. When more art-world characters arrive (played by Stacey Yen and Kate Benson), they sometimes play the same characters we've already met. Has Deb gone mad? Or is this theater's revenge for centuries of double casting? By the play's whirling climax, five actors play an entire gallery's worth of people, the boundaries of established character dissolving into a mad storm of changing selves.
Lieblich also wrote the recent Ghost Stories, another Escheresque narrative that allowed actors to move in and out of roles, keeping the audience just off balance. In D Deb Debbie Deborah, Lieblich gives that project a distinctly Charlie Kaufman spin—the same meta-media games, the same permeating mood of heartbreak.
Crucially, though, Lieblich's trickery is rooted in a deep understanding of what live performance makes possible. Designer Brett J. Banakis shapes the tiny Wild Project into a deceptively plain magician's box, using walls that stop a foot and a half before the floor. The fact that we can see people's legs as they approach from offstage gives the whole thing a “nothing up my sleeves” innocence, a transparency the production is eager to exploit. Deb is another expertly produced Clubbed Thumb Summerworks show, crafted exquisitely to showcase a script. You should know the piece is not perfect—the pace flags in the final third, the ending stutters, and not everyone in the cast can manage the show's ontological acrobatics. But whatever the minor fumbles, Lieblich has managed the ultimate bit of theatrical prestidigitation. Shazam, folks! Out of nowhere, he appears on the scene.—HS
The Wild Project (Off-Off Broadway). By Jerry Lieblich. Directed by Lee Sunday Evans. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 20mins. No intermission. Through May 30.