Gift of Gab

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Juggling plastic bags—now that’s talent. And if Dina Martina had done nothing else in Off the Charts, her surreal, sanatorium-ready act, her masterful gaze while maintaining three crumpled-up plastic bags in the air—each like some sort of weightless drug—would have kept the Cutting Room crowd transfixed.

But moments before, it was Martina’s face twisting the crowd into salty pretzels of laughter. From one angle she resembles Mrs. Mouth, the Manhattan cable-TV star of the 1980s and ’90s. Ms. Mouth would hang her head off the edge of a sofa, pitch a camera upside down over her face, paint two beady eyes and a pert nose on her chin, add a gloss of hot red lipstick, a wig (and plenty of queer affectations) and pontificate on sociopolitical topics while making prank telephone calls. From another angle, Martina resembles Theatre of the Ridiculous playwright Charles Ludlam decked out in a brunette tress from the Liza Minnelli/Joyce DeWitt School of Fashion Design, heavily accented with the Botox-embossed lips of Jocelyn Wildenstein. (Says my partner Ken: “She looks like Liz Taylor and Liza Minnelli hit with a brick.”)

Off the Charts is nominally Martina’s paean to the 1980s. She comes on stage singing Duran Duran’s “Rio” in a costume that’s half jazzercise outfit, half 14th Street satin. She sings in three voices, of which I heard two: an off-key, tremulous falsetto that turns screechy and silly the higher she goes (cue laughter) and a head voice that turns screechy and silly the higher she goes (cue more laughter). Her publicist told me that her third voice is actually quite beautiful and that Martina’s real name is Grady West and he’s from Seattle.

Martina’s patter is as fruitcake-nutty as her singing. And while her stories are on the ludicrous side, they are ludicrously amusing nonetheless. She updates everyone on the at-risk-youth theater group she founded last year, especially on how their Central Park stage adaptations of Todd Solondz’s Happiness and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws came out. There’s a punch line about dialysis that lands like an eight-ball in the corner pocket. She sustains such an odd riff about the hard and soft consonants “g” and “j” that you sit there—I mean, shit there—and just marvel. Speaking of Joyce DeWitt, during one of Martina’s gift-giving segments one lucky audience member received an unopened packet of Three’s Company collector cards. That was after her joke about pinkeye and the one about dropping water weight “like 12-year-old boys drop testes.” Rather than finish a musical number, she ate a plate of spaghetti.

The applause Martina earns for this is really her drug of choice: After one enthusiastic outburst, she observed that all the hand-clapping sounded like “God’s fryin’ bacon,” which seemed pretty accurate. And while it’s impossible to explain this moment completely, when Martina saw something sweet on the plate of the man in front of her, her eyes grew; you could almost feel her heart palpitating. She cried “Cookie!” in the gravelly voice of the Cookie Monster and three patrons fell in the aisle.

Even the weaker elements of Martina’s act are noteworthy. It’s like watching the Wright brothers crashing to the ground: You know eventually something is going to fly. For example, her cover of “Looking Through the Eyes of Love” from Ice Castles lasts too long, and her hyperactive medley of Morrissey songs could just as easily have been an infomercial for psychopharmaceutical products. Or maybe that’s what Off the Charts is really about.

Through March 9. The Cutting Room, 19 W. 24th St. (betw. 5th & 6th Aves.), 212-352-3101; $20.

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