Sunday, January 17, 2010

Not-so Fabuloso

See that actress in green? That's how you'll feel during Fabuloso.

Few local stages swing as wildly in quality as the Merrimack Rep. With a great play, they're my favorite theatre in the region. The Seafarer was the ultimate dark night of the soul; Heroes, a piquant last stand in the sun.

But then there are the productions like the oh-so-ironically-titled Fabuloso, by John Kolvenbach. I'm glad in only one way that I saw it: whenever I say there are actually too many new plays being done in Boston, I can from now on point to this script as Exhibit A. Here's the set-up (and I promise you I'm not making this up): it's actually about a boring, uptight couple whose lives are turned upside down by some wacky friends who just won't leave!!! But wait for the twist - everybody learns to lighten up and get in touch with their inner crazy! Can you believe it?

Yup. You may recall that one from the fourth season of Friends, or the second season of Will and Grace, or the entire run of Two and a Half Men. And if you loved it then, you're sure to love it even more now, when you've paid $40 for it and it runs two hours! Oh, yeah.

Only - oops - did I mention that there aren't any funny lines? That's right; Kolvenbach forgot the funny. And gosh, what a thing to leave out when his plot is one long cliché and he can't sustain most of his scenes for more than four beats! There are actually black-outs in this show where you find yourself wondering in the dark, "Hold on a minute - was that supposed to be the joke?" Maybe Mr. Kolvenbach should have titled this one "Sorry-Actors-You're-Up-The-Creek-Without-a-Paddle-oso!"

For the record, the actors at the Merrimack paddle hard (really hard), and the pair playing the "straight" couple - Jeremiah Wiggins and Rebecca Harris - at least hold their own against the current. But then they don't have to be funny. It's the pair stuck with the "komedy" that we feel for, as they race around with carving knives in their loud Hawaiian shirts and even actually lip-synch to pop songs. Interestingly, these two try distinct (in fact opposed) strategies to put over Kolvenbach's second-hand goods: Amy Kim Waschke opts to sell it, baby, while Ed Jewett aims for something more casual. Neither technique works - although both eke out the occasional laugh here and there, and Waschke at least calms down for the play's only real scene (opposite Harris). But to be honest, watching this pair beg for laughs in different keys is like watching two people try to squeeze blood from opposite sides of the same stone. Or maybe the same piece of plastic.

Because Fabuloso is plastic through and through - which is no surprise, because it's really a product, not a play, that Kolvenbach has machine-tooled to fit into a specific slot in a generic small-regional-theatre season (and thus it's been produced all over the country). It hits a demographic that theatres are all targeting - thirtysomething yuppies - with, yes, a single set and just four actors, and a familiar, TV-tried-and-tested concept. For all I know, it may also come with some tupperware or maybe that set of steak knives. That would at least be a reason to program it.

What else might have possessed the Merrimack to do so, I can't imagine. Times are hard - and the Merrimack is one of the few local theatres that has actually kept in the black over the course of the economic downturn. But recycled sitcoms are not the way to hold onto your audience - especially not the kind of audience that is used to applauding Skylight and The Four of Us, for heaven's sake. Oh, well. We'll file this under "When Bad Plays Happen to Good Theatres." And let's hope in future this remarkable company will keep things actually fabulous, instead of Fabuloso.


  1. Regardless of the quality of the play, it's worth noting it wouldn't be a good exhibit A, because it is not, in fact new.

    as a quick google search reveals:

    it's been done a lot. Apparently its world premiere was three years ago in Toronto. It was done recently only an hour away from Boston in Wellfleet Harbor in a production reviewed by this paper you might have heard of called "The Boston Globe".

    I know off the top of my head of another production earlier this year at a friend's company in Portland, Oregon.

    So again, the problem isn't that Boston does too many new plays, but rather that it does a lot of (assuming your quality assessment is correct, I haven't seen the play), but rather that they do crappy *recent/contemporary* plays. And it's nto that they're *recent and contemporary* that's the issue, but rather that they suck.

    Now of course, as Outrageous Fortune documents, people do define new plays in a wide range of ways. so maybe there's a definition that includes "produced multiple times over the last few years in a variety of theaters in a variety of cities" but I don't really buy it.

    In fact, at least in terms of US Presence, "Fabuloso" is as "new" as "Seafarer", which premiered in the same year (And had its world premiere a year earlier, in 2006). So you could also point to the Seafarer as Exhibit A for how great it is that all this new work is happening in Boston.

  2. Isaac, you're on a fool's errand, so just calm down. If you had read the review carefully, you'd have noted that I point out Fabuloso has "been done all over the country." I never said that this was a premiere. But even at the ancient age of three years, it still counts as a "new play." Ok, Seafarer is only slightly older. And yes, occasionally a new play is indeed a good one.

    The point, however, is this: there is enough new-play production going on that there are now open slots available that can be filled by rote, as Kolvenbach has done. New play production is not some struggling invalid; it is, instead, a market substantial enough to have generated its own niches. Now go shadow-box with someone else.