Urinetown! The Musical

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Though no one who pays for tickets can be expected to sympathize, April is certainly the cruelest month for theater critics. The deadline for the big annual theater awards is May 1, and since Broadway producers cling to the cynical belief that none of us voters possesses a memory, and thus no show more than four weeks old has a chance at a nomination, April is crammed full of more openings than any sane theatergoer could conceivably enjoy. The marathon of mediocrity itself removes the impediment of sanity, of course, but that hardly works to anyone's advantage. Hope and good will are the first casualties of madness and fatigue, and the shortsighted producers will never get it through their crania that they lose far more from numbness and irritation in the end than they ever could from forgetfulness.

My defense for several years has been to make sure that my April contains enough Off-Broadway protein to carry me through all the expensive sugar. I'll spare everyone my cranky invective, then, for the likes of Bells Are Ringing, Follies, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and that most specious of protests against corrupt power ever written, anywhere, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. (No, I haven't seen The Producers yet.) Entertaining shows that, regardless of their faults, are actually worth an intelligent person's time deserve the attention more.

Urinetown! The Musical is the dark-horse success story of the 1999 New York International Fringe Festival?now reopened under John Rando's crisp direction at the marvelously dungeon-like American Theater of Actors, and backed by the deep-pocketed Dodger Theatricals and a first-rate ensemble. This show also happens to be a specious protest against corrupt power, but it's so flippantly and hilariously self-conscious about that speciousness that you root for it until the end, half-believing it will redeem its flabby politics. The title is of course awful, and the story's premise absurd, but as long as charming and talented actors and singers acknowledge that themselves, there must be more to it all. Right?

The premise is that, in a futuristic Gotham that looks suspiciously like 1930s America except that corporate execs get faxes, a 20-year drought has forced the government to declare private bathrooms illegal. The filthy "public amenities" are all operated by a private firm, Urine Good Company (UGC), which charges exorbitant access fees and has elected officials on its payroll. The inevitable rebellion happens, as does the inevitable love affair between the callow rebel leader and the UGC president's idealistic daughter, and you can fill in the rest. What's new is the terrific pop score by Mark Hollmann and dozens of gritty little self-deprecating jokes by book-writer Greg Kotis, which keep renewing the audience's patience.

Hollmann has said in interviews that his models for Urinetown! were Marc Blitzstein's Cradle Will Rock and Brecht/Weill's The Threepenny Opera. As anyone who's seen one of its revivals can testify, however, Cradle Will Rock reads as a hopelessly simplistic cartoon in the tv age (surely why its content was mostly kept out of Tim Robbins' movie of the same title, about the first production), and so do most of Brecht's parables. Ratcheting up the self-consciousness is a good strategy for making such parables fly again, but the underlying material has to be complex enough to bear the sharpened scrutiny. Kotis' strongest "commentators" are a toothily smarmy cop named Lockstock and a hyperarticulate, smudgy-faced girl named Little Sally (superbly played by Jeff McCarthy and Spencer Kayden), who say things like: "He's the hero of the show, she has to love him." No one else can live up to their irony and cleverness, though, so the action keeps returning to its dreamy and essentially innocuous ground state. Unfortunately, as Brecht sort of said, showing that you know musicals are based on sentimental fluff and mind-deadening repetition isn't the same thing as changing that.

American Theater of Actors, 314 W. 54th St. (betw. 8th & 9th Aves.), 239-6200, through May 28.

Troilus and Cressida
By William Shakespeare American Place Theater

Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida isn't performed very often. Strangely enough, though, just about every reputable Shakespeare director for the past 100 years has declared a special interest in it. Now comic, now tragic, now recklessly satirical regarding the self-involved cynics carrying on the Trojan war, it is burdened by an abundance of long, rhetorically ornate speeches but is nevertheless one of the most uncannily modern plays in the classical canon. Before the 20th century it baffled nearly everyone. There is no reliable record of it ever being performed in earlier eras, and some scholars believe that its scathingly satirical views of power-brokers represented a rare, uncharacteristic flirtation with truly dangerous political critique on the part of Shakespeare?possibly the reason why it never entered the repertory of the Globe.

The main question for production in our time, then, is how to give it an edge of political danger and keep it sharp. Most often, the play has been made into an anti-war statement; the Nazis banned it for its lampoon of nationalistic belligerence. In the feminist era, though, it risks appearing misogynist, because one of its central events is the betrayal of Troilus by young Cressida, who proves a "wanton" after being traded to the Greeks in exchange for a Trojan general. The Berliner Ensemble once turned this problem on its head by transforming the action into a feminist protest: director Manfred Wekwerth made Troilus seem to betray Cressida first, by agreeing too readily to her exchange for the general, and she was portrayed as an unstable youngster driven to distraction by the men's brutality.

In this modest Theater for a New Audience (TFNA) production, the great Peter Hall, founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company, has neglected to supply any such edge. The production is in fact so meandering, sputtering and aimlessly designed that I'm tempted to suggest that it would've been best put off until our ersatz POTUS reveals what sort of replay of the Gulf War he plans to cook up in time for the next election. As it stands, Hall leaves a sense of a missing center, leaning too heavily on the talents of individual actors who are, alas, only occasionally up to the test. At the same time, I hasten to add that a few performances are excellent. Hall is one of the best guides alive to the speaking of Shakespeare's language, and rare as it is to see this play at all, it's even rarer to hear the unusually subtle and complex text spoken with such lucidity.

The high point of the evening is Andrew Weems' performance as Thersites, the "deformed and scurrilous Greek" in whose mouth Shakespeare placed some of the most fluid and incautious vituperation he ever wrote. Filthy and pudgy with a strangely clouded eye, several missing fingers and a long, gruesome scar across his bare belly, he doubles as the Prologue/narrator, loping and scuffling across the circle of sand that serves as a stage, salivating over his insults and throwing decomposed corpses about like surplus scrap in a junkyard. Weems alone communicates the true depth of disgust in the work, but Philip Goodwin's Ulysses?another extremely difficult role?is also extraordinarily slimy, striding on with a little plastic portfolio and employing his weirdly lolling tongue in a continuous, insinuating stream of seedy wit and tactical plaintiveness.

The biggest casting gaffe is Joey Kern, who is as wooden and phony as Troilus as he was as one of the baby-stoners in TFNA's Saved a few months ago. His fatuousness shouldn't be projected onto Tricia Paoluccio as Cressida, though (as some critics have done), who is much more substantial and moving. She plays the role as a sort of Shakespearean Ado Annie, just a cute Trojan girl who can't say "no," with a twinkle in her nubile eye and a precocious hunger to start learning early how to manipulate men?which proves disastrous only because her world isn't a safe place for anyone but expert manipulators.

Also strong and memorable are David Conrad's commanding and charming Hector and Tony Church's unctuous Pandarus. As for Martin Pakledinaz's costumes?depicting the Greeks as road-weary, jackbooted bikers and the Trojans as barefoot, silk-draped epicures?they're like a thesis left unexplored, a visual non sequitur that might have provided an interesting point of contrast (had Hall believed in it) but is now merely distracting.

American Place Theater, 111 W. 46th St. (betw. 6th & 7th Aves.), 239-6200, through May 13.

The Dead Eye Boy
By Angus MacLachlan MCC Theater

The acting in The Dead Eye Boy?Angus MacLachlan's three-hander about a pair of former addicts trying to solidify their life together in the presence of the woman's extremely troubled 14-year-old son?is superb. It has the same sort of gritty intensity the New Group's casts had in their outstanding Mike Leigh projects a few years ago, Ecstasy and Goose-Pimples. That MacLachlan couldn't figure out how to end his story doesn't detract from the creepy tenacity of the play's first hour. Joseph Murphy and the indie-film star Lili Taylor are terrific as the couple, and high-schooler Aaron Himelstein is unforgettable as the boy. Directed by Susan Fenichell, this is a punchy and prickly production that deserves to be seen.

With this column, my nearly four-year tenure as theater critic for New York Press comes to an end. Explaining to me that they feel "the theater is boring," the editors have decided that they no longer wish to devote regular space to it. I therefore bid farewell to my readers and invite them to meet me wherever I land in the future.

MCC Theater, 120 W. 28th St. (betw. 6th & 7th Aves.), 727-7765, through May 5.

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