Para-Obstetrics For Lovers
If you've ever been the gatekeeper of a child's mouth, you've probably grappled with the word "NUK." Like Kleenex, NUK is a trademark that now stands in for the product at large, and like "pustulated," it's an ugly word, partly because of its resemblance to a vulgarism associated in the recent past with the feminist rock-music combo Limp Bizkit. Looking to avoid this word, yet equally committed to baby-friendly informality, a growing number of parents have embraced the present writer's neologism, "Cloon," a truncation of the surname of hillbilly heartthrob George Clooney, who starred in the movie The Peacemaker, the noun of which title is synonymous with "pacifier."
In Flaneur Productions' Black Diamond Baby, actor Christian Gaylord's creepy general has a Cloon attached to his trench coat (with a Cloon Clip, the greatest practical invention since the mechanical pencil). Once in a while, in a desperate gesture that brings to mind Dennis Hopper's ether hits in Blue Velvet, he gives the Cloon a vigorous sucking. It seems to help.
The production, which takes place in a storage space of the advertising and design school Brainco, is staged in two walk-in-closet-sized wooden boxes. In one, we eavesdrop on the general and his playfellow, Agent Orrin (Don Mabley-Allen), as they conduct a disjointed debate about authenticity and individuality versus replication and conformity. In their underground hovel, among other conversation pieces, is a fish tank full of jellyfish.
In the other box, Sydney (Cherri Macht) and Howard (Barbara Meyer) carry on a related debate, and try to decipher a book called Para-Obstetrics. (And yes, those last two are male character names and female actors. The performers are not in drag. Discuss.) Also, there's an active volcano near wherever this is taking place, and Sydney and Howard are involved in some conspiracy involving babies and/or aliens, and there's a puppet in the show, but I don't think any of this has to do with TV's beloved Alf.
In an e-mail note, playwright Jim Bovino told me he hopes his work will inspire an "opening for [the spectator's] imagination." And it does, in a couple of ways. One, it's a smart piece that might inspire some amateur philosophy. (Thanks to something I'd read the night before, I was led to muse about the fallacy of linguistic determinism; I also thought about pizza.) Two, it's so recondite, so uninterested in narrative or drama, that any garden-variety mind is likely to wander a bit or a lot.
I have a mild crush on this show, by which I mean I'm attracted to its art-for-art's-sake spirit, I like some of the language, and I like what seems to be its very natural (authentic?) strangeness. Yet it's a hard piece for me to love. I fear that it's not visually interesting enough to carry its not-always captivating poetry and free-form dialogue. Still, and with all sincerity, it makes me deeply happy that this stuff exists, warts and jellyfish and bleeding foreheads (I forgot to mention that part) and all. At least I think that's what I think, but how can I be sure? "I have a difficult time distinguishing between my thoughts and those of others," says Sydney at one point, to which Howard responds, like a Dadaist vaudevillian, "You have other people's thoughts in your head?"
Nautilus Music-Theater's excellent production of Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years tracks the relationship of struggling actress Cathy Hiatt and novel-scribbling phenom Jamie Wellerstein. Cathy tells her side of the story from the breakup backward, while Jamie starts with courtship and ends with his affairs with editors. Jamie has a bit of Alex Portnoy about him, both in his taste in girlfriends (his first song is called "Shiksa Goddess") and in his big-time jerkiness. He says stuff like "I will not fail to make you comfortable, Cathy. I will not lose because you can't win."
But like the best jerks, Jamie also has a goodly bulk of charm, which is made clear in ace singer Bradley Greenwald's joyful performance. Norah Long is a similarly adept singer-actor, and with the help of director Ben Krywosz and fancy-fingered pianist Mindy Eschedor, both stars make the line between acting and singing pleasantly fuzzy. Brown's songs can recall Sondheim, McCartney, and elegant light opera. Elsewhere, and with considerably less relish, I detect Billy Joel trying to be Elvis Costello.
The composer can mistake cuteness for cleverness, and like any unabashed sentimentalist, he's often a stone's throw from mawkishness. But mostly he's a swell melody crafter, an artful storyteller, and damn if this robustly emotional musical/song cycle didn't make me laugh and (I'm blushing) cry. I'm already looking forward to The Five Years After That.
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