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Theater Review: ‘Phoenix’ doesn’t fly at Fringe Festival

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

THE PHOENIX and other aspects of the Third New York International Fringe Festival (1999).

In the first two years of its existence, the New York International Fringe Festival hosted six events of Irish or Irish-American provenance, among the most memorable being Joe Lucas’s one-man memory play of life among Pennsylvania’s anthracite miners, "Once a Man, Twice a Boy," which played to capacity audiences two years ago. In addition, the first two runnings of the Fringe drew performers and plays from Dublin and Galway, not to mention Irish artists based in Canada.

In this year’s Fringe, however, which concluded on Aug. 29, Irish and Irish-American participation was minimal, and disappointing to boot.

The one specifically Irish-oriented attraction among the nearly 100 items registered in the Fringe, and scheduled to play an average of seven performances at one of the roughly two dozen venues involved in the festival, was Morgan Spurlock’s "The Phoenix."

Set in an unspecified Manhattan barroom, probably a location not far from Wall Street, to judge by the preoccupations of one or two of the regulars, "The Phoenix" takes its title from the name of the shabby establishment where it takes place.

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Boomerang Joe, the bartender, played with an authentic working-class Dublin accent by James Hanlon, has ostensibly seen everything, perhaps stopping just short of the events playwright Spurlock has dreamed up for this particular early evening in the place.

Mick (Don Reuter) has just told his boss off and been dismissed for his trouble. Trying to drink his anguish and anger into submission, he pours out his grievances to Nick, played by Bill Quigley as one of the great listeners of modern theatrical literature.

The author, whose notes proclaim that he wrote the play, in part, at least, in order to provide strong roles for women, has created two female parts that are, if nothing else, noisy and abrasive. Teresa, played lustily by Monica Helm, is the leader and the aggressor, while Maria, played by Irish Repertory Theatre regular Blythe Batem, provides her audience, content to squeal in agreement with virtually everything she says and does. Playwright Spurlock, who directed his own play, appears to have an extensive history of steering television commercials and music videos. He has chosen to direct "The Phoenix" at full speed and top volume, with the actors screaming at each other and braying like donkeys to get what laughs might lie hidden in the text.

Spurlock, at least at one early Fringe performance, chose to tell his eager audience how funny his play was, and what a splendid time they were about to have. Not, to put it mildly, a good idea, particularly considering the realities of the situation.

Elsewhere on the Fringe map, things were considerably more encouraging. "Never Swim Alone," by the Canadian playwright and actor Daniel MacIvor, was given an impeccable American staging at the hands of Go Productions, a new partnership composed of publisher Tim O’Brien and screenwriter Craig Garcia, with Timothy P. Jones directing a first-rate three-actor cast.

In the fast-paced, 60-minute play, two men, friends and professional colleagues, face off in a range of "rounds" adjudicated by a girl both of whom knew her from their childhood days.

MacIvor’s deft play is, of course, an exercise in male bonding, aggression, and the struggle to emerge as the Alpha Male, even in a suburban situation. "Never Swim Alone" was adroitly performed by John Maria as the more aggressive of the pair, Derek Milman as the stealthier partner and the gaminelike Susan O’Connor as the unnamed referee. Special mention might be made of Maria, a powerful and skilled young actor who will, almost certainly, be heard from again and often.

An even more ambitious, full-length play, "Rain From Out of the Blue," with the subtitle "Riffs on the Death and Life of Chet Baker," turned up at an unfamiliar new venue, the New York Performance Works Theatre on Chambers Street at West Broadway.

Written by Todd Rayfield, who also played, with considerable skill, the youthful evocation of the celebrated jazzman who died in a fall from a hotel window in Amsterdam on May 13, 1988, "Rain From Out of the Blue" is, ironically, not the first Fringe play to take Baker as a subject. Last year’s Fringe featured a briefer, less ambitious look at the tragic, drug-destroyed trumpet player and, like Rayfield’s complicated, skilful version, drew full houses at almost every performance.

The play’s present tense takes place in the room in the Hotel Prince Henrik on the last day of Baker’s life, as he banters with the establishment’s hard-pressed chambermaid, Daniella, alternately flirting with her and imploring her to assist him in his longed-for suicide.

Meanwhile, in flashback scenes, a younger Chet deals with fellow musicians, drug dealers, and even the ghost of his own father.

In addition to playwright Rayfield’s subtle work as the young musician, graced by the fact that he actually plays a cornet and plays it well, there was excellent work by Danny Cleary as the disintegrating Baker and Erica Silberman as Daniella.

At the end of the 12-day Fringe Festival, "Never Swim Alone" emerged a winner in the category of "general excellence in drama."

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