Monday, July 16, 2012

Back to the Mesozoic

Among the advantages to living in or near New York City (I’m in the ‘burbs), quite aside from the well-known upscale and expensive varieties of entertainment on hand, is the abundance of quirky but very professional acts of all kinds playing in small venues. They include musicians, comedians, performance artists, off-Broadway plays, and more. (To local boosters elsewhere, I know NYC is not alone in this regard, but the point still holds.)

Some of the acts go on to greater fame. The walls of The Bitter End (a small and rather dingy place) are covered with posters of past performers who became stars. The overwhelming majority become nothing of the kind; they play a few dates and then vanish without a trace. Sometimes the evanished ones are the best ones. For instance, about a decade ago my friend Ken suggested I catch Fiona Sand at Arlene’s Grocery – that’s the first club featured in the movie Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist. I agreed with him she had a sound and stage presence that were (in the good sense) commercial, but apparently we were wrong; eventually Fiona moved back to Norway and on to other things. (Some of her songs are still up on Myspace: .) Other artists gain notoriety without quite being stars, such as playwright/actor Charles Busch whose off-Broadway plays in the 80s were marvelous; when he went Hollywood, however, the plays really didn’t translate as well into movies (e.g. Die, Mommy, Die! and Psycho Beach Party), though one might yet.

Last Friday, I scanned the offerings on Playbill and, just on whimsy, bought a ticket for that night’s performance of a little off-Broadway production called Triassic Parq at the Soho Playhouse. A musical comedy parody of Jurassic Park, it opens with a raptor in a cage and the familiar shout, “Shoot her! Shoot her!” No, the actors are not all in Barney costumes. They rely on a little make-up, clothes with somewhat reptilian patterns, and …well … acting to portray dinosaurs. The plot: a T. Rex spontaneously turns into a male. As you may recall from the book or movie Jurassic Park, all the dinos on the island are female to prevent breeding outside the lab, but some of the critters change.  (It’s just a plot device not meant to be examined for accuracy, of course, but, as it happens, some amphibian and reptile species can change sex due to environmental factors, though usually while still in the egg.) The event causes great consternation among the dinosaurs; it shakes the peculiar faith they have developed regarding the lab and humans – and regarding the goats that mysteriously appear out of the ground at feeding time. The roles are gender bending with the newly male dino played by a woman and several of the females played by men. To the extent the play is serious (or at least rises above simple farce – it’s never altogether serious) the script addresses gender perspectives, intolerance of alternate viewpoints, and the normality of hypocrisy.

The play is clever and funny, though I do not see it breaking out into larger venues in the way Little Shop of Horrors leapt out of its East Village home at the Orpheum 30 years ago. If the production has a fault, it is just a little too much earnestness, but that’s not much of a fault. The humor is a mix of high, middle, and low brow. I’m fine with all three, but I couldn’t help noticing that the low got all the loud laughs. New York audiences like to think they are more sophisticated than others, but the evidence isn’t on their side. The actors must comment among themselves, “You know, if we just dropped our pants and forgot about the play, the audience would be just as happy.” By and large, that is probably true, but I’m glad all the same that the writers, producers, and cast aimed at something a little more ambitious.

So, if any dinos show up in a theater in your neighborhood (or if you already live a reasonable distance from Soho), take a ride past the Tyrannosaur pen. You might enjoy it.

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