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August 18, 2012

A Surprisingly Satisfying Day at the Fringe

Unless a friend, relative or lover is doing one of its shows, deciding what to see at the New York International Fringe Festival can be daunting.  Not to mention disappointing. There are nearly 200 shows each year, ranging in quality from polished professionalism to flagrant narcissism. In the past I’ve either thrown up my hands and skipped the festival entirely or chosen haphazardly and then wish that I had skipped it. 

But I got smart this year and about a month ago, I enlisted the help of my intrepid theatergoing buddy Bill, who read through this year’s offerings (click here to do the same) checked out the early buzz on them and then made up a short list of candidates that we might want to see. Luckily, three of the shows that most intrigued us were playing on the same day and so this past Wednesday, Bill and I created our own mini-festival and for the first time ever I can say I had a great time at the Fringe.

All of the Fringe shows play at theaters downtown within walking distance of one another, which makes it easy to get from one to the other.  Bill and I started our day at 2 p.m. at the Gene Frankel Theatre with Pink Milk, a 90-minute meditation on the life of Alan Turing, the brilliant computer scientist and cryptologist who helped the Brits break the German code during World War II but later committed suicide after being prosecuted for gross indecency because he was gay when that was illegal in England.

The show's playwright Alex Paul Young and his seven-member cast are all current college students or recent grads and both the play and the performances reflect their youth. And Pink Milk doesn’t add much to our understanding of Turing beyond what Hugh Whitemore offered in his 1986 play Breaking the Code, which introduced Turing to the general public and gave Derek Jacobi his West End debut.

Still, there is a sweet earnest to Pink Milk that flows from a new generation’s delight in having discovered a martyr and hero.  And director Brandon Powers has gussied up the production with all kinds of stagecraft, including stylized dance routines and some symbolic business with apples. He slightly overdoes it but I wouldn’t mind seeing more from him—or from Young for that matter. And, if you hurry, you can see what they’ve done with this since there’s a performance tonight and one more on Sunday afternoon.

Our next show, Independents, was scheduled to start at 4 p.m. and so Bill and I scooted up Second Avenue to Theatre 80 on St. Mark’s Place. There was a great deal of interest in this musical because its book writer Marina Keegan was killed in an auto accident in May, just days after graduating from Yale and a few weeks before she was scheduled to start working as an assistant at The New Yorker (click here to read more about her).

Her collaborators and fellow Yalies, composer Stephen Feigenbaum, lyricist Mark Sonnenblick and director Charlie Polinger, have dedicated the show to Keegan’s memory and it turns out to be a very nice tribute. 

The plot centers around a group of young misfits who are living on a Revolutionary- era tall ship that is the only thing one of them inherited when his parents unexpectedly died. He and his crew try to raise the money to pay off some debt on the boat by performing as Colonial Williamsburg-style reenactors.  But they’re no good at it until a Corky St. Clair-style intern arrives.

There are additional subplots involving a brother in foster care, at least two troubled romances and drug smugglers that Keegan might have combed out and tightened had she lived. But as is, the show is buoyed up by its terrific score—an entertaining blend of pop-rock tunes, riffs on sea ditties and a lovely cabaret-ready ballad, “I Should Be Glad He’s Gone.” 

Polinger meanwhile has directed with a sure hand. The cast—a mix of vets from the original Yale production and young New York actors including Lilli Cooper, the original Martha in Spring Awakening who sings the hell out of that “He’s Gone” ballad—comes with varying degrees of talent but is so thoroughly natural and comfortable with one another that I thought they’d all been longtime friends until I read the Playbill. Kudos to both Polinger and casting director Holly Buczek.

The production values are similarly strong. The handsome nautical set by Brian Dudkiewicz reminded Bill and me of the one for Peter and the Starcatcher and appropriately so since this show is not only set on a ship but deals with a contemporary group of lost boys and girls. 

Independents is scheduled for three more performances next week before the whole Fringe Festival closes on Aug. 26.  The word is that all seats for it were sold out but there were a few vacant ones at our performance so go and you might get lucky.

It began to rain when Bill and I walked out of the theater and since we had an hour until our 7 p.m. show, we ducked into a cafĂ© on Second Avenue and got a quick snack. When the rain slowed, we ran over to the Kraine Theater on 4th Street, where we saw the most professional of the three shows, Tail! Spin!, Mario Correa’s satirical spin on political sex scandals.

Excerpting verbatim transcripts from press conferences, interviews, emails and other public utterances, Correa revisits former Sen. Larry Craig’s arrest for lewd conduct in a men's airport bathroom, former Rep. Mark Foley’s salacious email exchanges with teen boys, former Gov. Mark Sanford’s extramarital affair with an Argentinean journalist and former Rep. Anthony Weiner’s sexting and emailing of lewd photos of himself. 

The fun derives from the way Correa juxtaposes the words each man said as he tried to control the damage after his alleged indiscretions had been revealed. Veteran comedy director Dan Knechtges brings a light but deft touch to the proceedings in which the actors sit on stools and occasionally refer to the scripts they carry. Video projections help the audience keep track of who’s speaking.

The shamed pols are played by a terrific quarter of actors who’ve honed their comedic skills on TV and onstage: Sean Dugan as Craig, Dan Hodapp as Foley, Mo Rocca as Sanford and Nate Smith as Weiner  But best of all is  “Saturday Night Live’s” Rachel Dratch, who, as the Playbill notes, plays the men’s “wives, tails, beards & Barbara Walters” and is LOL-funny as each. 

Bill and I caught the next-to-the-last performance of Tail! Spin! but it wouldn’t have mattered even if I’d told you about it earlier because all of the seats sold out as soon as the tickets went on sale last month.

So, we did three plays in six hours. None was perfect but they were good enough that I would have been up for even another.

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