New York International Fringe Festival 2009
Reviewed by Christian Graysen
Unless you’ve been living in outer space for the last few years, you know that every industry that had a “boom” is now going “bust.” For further evidence, there’s Genesis Repertory’s production of The Check Is In The Mail for the 13th Annual Fringe Festival. This high-speed one-act gives us an eye-in-keyhole view of the travails of a once flourishing business, now suffering due to one stupid move.
Playwright Robert Liebowitz once again hands us a well-written play spoken by the people for the people. Two Fringes ago, he put family matters in The Twilight Zone with the ghost story, The Wisdom That Men Seek. In this case, Check is the story of two partners in a prosperous printing firm (Allen Lewis Rickman and Jay Michaels) who made their first million in the days when business was run on cocktail lunches, a working knowledge of Yiddish and ribald humor, and a healthy dose of misogyny. The aforementioned stupid move was from founder, Leon Lipkin (Rickman), shortchanging star salesperson Janet Kupper (Cynthia Granville). Kupper instantly quits and sends the company into a tailspin with no way out … except one.
The cast is a group of seasoned pros and fresh faces: Allen Lewis Rickman and Jay Michaels as partners Leon Lipkin and Jerry Case, respectively, are enthralling. At once Bialystock & Bloom, then Felix & Oscar, Laurel & Hardy, Jekyll & Hyde, then Hyde & Hyde, the two banter almost non-stop for 70 minutes with humorous kibitzing giving way to dark accusations and devastating plot twists with Michaels excellently carrying the lion’s share of maneuvering the plot through all its sharp turns. Cynthia Granville deftly plays salesperson Janet with a world-weary air while maintaining a vulnerability needed to carry the subplot involving her relationship to Leon. Completing the quorum is Francis Callahan as Tommy, the lawyer for the unlawful. Callahan imbues Tommy with a savage persona then covers it with a lilting tenor tone. A perfect wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Populating the office was a bevy of supporting players whose countenance served as commentary for the action. Theresa Chow as Jerry’s officious assistant played the admin-afraid-of-losing-her-job with grace; Domenick Petito, stone-faced and imposing, as Cavanaugh’s right arm; and Kristin O’Blessin, the light comedy of this dark comedy as Helen, the befuddled office manager. O’Blessin’s presence turned her scenes with the two partners into a vaudeville routine prompting high-pitched screams from Rickman and old-fashioned double-takes from Michaels. O’Blessin then joined the dance trio for top-notch routines. That is not a typo, there are dance routines.
The play by itself is lively and engrossing but in the hands of director Mary Elizabeth MiCari (that’s right a female director for a play about chauvinistic white men) it is turned into an inspired piece of theatre. Injecting modern music, eerie lighting, and surreal dance breaks that seemed to both sum up and foretell, MiCari turned a naturalistic play into an ancient parable of hubris. Three dancers (O’Blessin, veteran dancer/choreographer Joyce A. Adams, and the fleet-footed Stefanie Smith, memorable as Leon’s less-than-perfect date) tapped, swayed, clogged, and marched to the beat of tunes played under foreboding newscasts of world affairs spoken by actual announcers from WPLJ. The company prides itself on finding ancient markings within all art and MiCari (the company’s new artistic director) outdid herself. The dancers were pagan priestesses, Greek chorines, or Macbethian witches, take your choice.
Technically, the show proved that less is more. Two desks made different by a soup of character driven props were all that was provided. While you might have wanted Leon to have an old woody desk and Jerry some modern piece of glass; the old monitor and chatkies on Leon’s desk told his tale while Jerry’s laptop, prescription pill buffet and stone statue summarized him. Likewise were the costumes. Jerry’s pinstripes battled the rumpled brown of Leon, with Janet in basic black and Tommy, a Clarence Darrow knockoff. Genesis’s crew – Shauna K. Smart from Hunter and Andrew Liebowitz from Brooklyn College (from the company internship program) – led by stage manager Robyn Gabrielle Lee, handled the lighting set-up, precision light and sound cues with ease.
Genesis Repertory is a parable of these changing times in and of itself. Once owners of the Jan Hus Playhouse, the company survived its lean years coupling with colleges and arts programs. Now a decade old, it can take its place as a fixture of the New York independent theatre scene, always presenting worthy works. This fall it begins work in its new 350 theatre in Brooklyn.
The Fringe – ironically – also is a parable. After 13 years, the Fringe is no longer the innovators but the competitor, with Fringes and Fringe-style Fests cropping up from Brooklyn to the Berkshires. But with clients like Genesis remaining loyal to the company store, New York will always have Fringe benefits.
The Check Is In the Mail has one more weekend – August 29 & 30. Go to http://www.fringenyc.org for details.