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There’s a War on East 59th Street—and It’s Hysterical

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There’s a war on East 59 Street. And it’s hysterical. Holed up in the otherwise empty Doodle Ranch Studios over the week between Christmas and New Year’s, two G-rated animators risk their hearts, souls and unconventional minds in a battle royal over childhood (entertainment) as we know it. By war, I mean emotional, sexual, moral, ethical; trick by trick; propaganda by revelation; all out raving combat. By holed up, I mean living on vending machine snacks and sodas, coffee grounds, protein bars, assorted drugs and water, sleeping in fits and starts between skirmishes, never washing or making a phone call, barely visiting the restroom for fear of the enemy gaining advantage.

chairBarbara (Tina Benko,) is a wired, whippet thin, antisocial, intellectual nihilist so ambitious she comes to work on Christmas Day. With the fervor of an evangelist, she intends to complete an animated sequence inserting base, dark reality and “ironic doubt” into a film about cartoon coffee beans for which “Randy Newman is writing songs in Spanglish and there’s already a Happy Meal.” Barbara thinks Disney did the imagining for us. She speaks in stone-faced baritone monotone whether describing her own primal sexual impulses or scientific rationalization.

Much to her surprise and annoyance, Barbara finds the office already occupied by Dex (Matthew Lawler), another maladjusted artist. Asleep among three days worth of empty cola cans under his desk, the one-time juvenile author has retreated from the demands of success into a field where he happily and idealistically “doodles.” Dex is a soft, sweet, balding, discouraged, divorced, part time dad who would probably look as if he slept in his clothes even if he didn’t. He comes in to get ahead on a different part of the same sequence and, like Barbara, to avoid the holiday.

Dex is chatty; he craves company. Barbara has one foot out the door, saying she “works poorly in groups.” Against all odds they immediately and magnetically come together in what the C movies call “hot, sweaty sex.” This is one of the sloppiest, funniest, rough and tumble sequences you’ll ever see on a stage. Kudos to Director Ian Morgan and his actors. Afterwards, the two gradually get to know one another, though not in any predictable or romantic way. There’s some absolutely terrific dialogue here—smart, provocative, and extremely humorous. The character’s diametrically opposed ideological differences create battle lines in the sand.

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Dex calls what Barbara’s doing “digital child abuse.” Barbara feels the world is “cold, meaningless, and constructed of clever nothings” about which kids should know sooner than later. She tells Dex he’s sold out, lost his innovative mojo. This is like holding the red cloth in front of a bull.

What ensues over the course of the week, displayed in sequences parenthesized by black-outs, is about as down and dirty as two people can get with manufactured weapons/contrivances and no outside help. Their successes are as farcical as their failures. Their emotional ricocheting like a great game of ping pong in slo mo. You’ll enjoy every minute.

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Shawn Nacol has written one of the most unconventional and unique plays on or off Broadway. It swings from profound to silly with a fluency few playwrights master when utilizing only one of those métiers. Barbara and Dex are alternately startlingly, if quirkily real, and act like cartoons themselves. They’re so artfully conceived the entire evening is filled with a fertile parade of peculiar character details, revealed one after another to audience delight. Nacol never settles for the reprise joke. His dizziness is superbly plotted. The issue-at-hand is valid, the specifics as wacky as they come. Unless you’re in the business, the film and process references are an education.

I have only one issue with Rough Sketch, that of the ending. I’m frankly unable to come up with an alternative, but can’t help thinking there might be a better one.

Ian Morgan does a wonderful job with a wide gamut of big and small direction. The characters never seem choreographed as they grab and parry, pass out, get sick, gesticulate, snoop and work. A sequence where Barbara holds a mirror to a series of her own rubber-faced expressions in an attempt to model for her art is worthy of silent movie comedies.

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Tina Benko is marvelous, as able with physical slapstick as with complicated philosophical diatribes. One can easily picture her spitting out Oscar Wilde to its best advantage. Her paranoia is palpable. She practically vibrates with barricaded feeling. Her comic delivery is sterling.

Matthew Lawler more than capably holds his own. From Dex’s first startled acceptance of the dumb luck that gets him laid to his finding and articulating a higher purpose than getting by, he’s completely believable. His speech about Dex’s daughter is affecting; his silent, visible reactions to Barbara’s theories and taunts a pleasure to watch.

Peter R. Feuchtwanger has designed an aptly messy, inspiration filled office (excessive dolls, plastic figures, toys, renderings,) each work space singular to its artist. There’s a lot to see before the action starts. The placement of a functioning vending machine works like a charm as a provisional fence between Barbara and Dex.

Special mention belongs to the imaginative sound designer and composer, Matt Sherwin. During every blackout we’re favored by a short piece of distinctive music peppered with cartoon action sounds…ostensibly indicating the characters movements in the dark. It’s a terrifically upbeat and evocative way to bridge the scenes. The sound device is also used intermittently within the unfolding story. It’s always completely apt adding a wonderfully goofy element.

Rough Sketch is a rollicking evening of deceptive content. Laughter seems more precious these days. This play is filled with it.

Rough Sketch by Shawn Nacol
Directed by Ian Morgan
Featuring: Tina Benko, Matthew Lawler
rUDE mECHANICALS  THEATER COMPANY
59E59 Theaters
59 East 59 Street
Ticket Central 212 279 4200
Through January 31 only

Above photos by J. Cherrae Photography

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