Sunday, December 02, 2007

Third Person Jimmy

"Doris to Darlene" at Playwrights Horizons, December 1, 2007

This new play by Jordan Harrison takes an clever concept, hints at moments of interesting possibility, but doesn't really deliver in the end.

There are actually three story lines in the play. The title refers only to one of those, which is the grooming of a young bi-racial woman, Doris (De'Adre Aziza) in the 1960s into a pop star, with a song based on Richard Wagner's Leibestod from "Tristan and Isolde." (First I'll have to say the Peter Schickele's tango version of the tune is a much better twist, than the doo-wop schtick of which we only hear a little.) There's a bit of "Dreamgirls" in this subplot, grooming a shy but talented young woman to stardom by a too-slick (and white) songwriter/producer Vic Watts (Michael Crane) likely modeled on an early Phil Spector, before the handguns. The second subplot is that of crazy King Ludwig II of Bavaria (Laura Heisler) and his infatuation with Richard Wagner (David Chandler), building rooms and grottos in his fantasy-land castles based on tales from Wagner's operas. The third subplot concerns a contemporary high school boy, only identified as "the Young Man" (Tobias Segal) and his fey Music Appreciation teacher Mr. Campani (Tom Nelis). The Young Man is coming to terms with his sexual orientation and sees a fellow sufferer in his teacher.

Director Les Waters has gathered, for the most part, a very talented cast to perform this work, which doesn't equal the talent being given to it. Ms. Aziza's Doris absolutely looks the part, and sings adequately, but never really gets beyond the two-dimensional writing she's been given.

Mr. Crane's Vic is sleazy, greasy and fast-talking. When he ends up married to Doris, now renamed Darlene DuPont, the relationship is doomed as his writing style falls out of style with the British invasion. Mr. Crane also does a nice job in the Young Man's story line as the hot bad-boy Billy Zimmer, an object of the Young Man's affections.

As Wagner, Mr. Chandler brings us a talented, if manipulative, composer who understands on which side his bread is buttered. Ms. Heisler's Ludwig brings a fresh vulnerability to the young king, an interesting and effective casting choice more often used in opera than traditional theatre.

Mr. Segal's Young Man quivers and quakes in his own vulnerability, eager to know what his life will be like, but totally unsure how to find out. Ultimately, it is Mr. Nelis' Mr. Campani who is most effective in his roles (he also doubles as Doris' grandmother). This teacher, a former vocal student himself who gave up his own dream of a performance career and suffers through his life unfulfilled by his own students who only take his class because they think it's an easy A. His tension with Mr. Segal is palpable as the Young Man asks the teacher if he's attracted to the Young Man. The older man knows the question is truly innocent, but understands the impropriety with which an honest answer would be viewed.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, Mr. Harrison starts with a clever concept. Where he errs is that just about all of the dialogue in this play is spoken in third person (remember the Seinfeld episode with Third-person Jimmy? Hence the title of this post). The only subplot that ever gets close to actual dialogue is the Young Man's, and even then it's inconsistent. Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, as well as Terrance McNally have all used a third person technique to end a play (Ragtime, Glorious Ones), but here it only falls flatter than the two acts that preceded it.

Production values were satisfactory, if unremarkable, with sets by Takeshi Kata, lights by Jane Cox and costumes by Christal Weatherly (while Wagner's dressing gown was notable, Mr. Campani's pink bow tie pushed the stereotype just a bit too far).

Click here for a discount ticket offer from Playwrights Horizons.

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