Tell Me How I Did
There was a time in Manhattan circa 1970 when actors performed “in the many places actors do plays in New York: churches, coffeehouses, bars, basement lofts, little theaters upstairs, little theaters downstairs, ELT (Equity Theatre Library), off-Broadway, on Broadway, everywhere,” said Michael Shurtleff, the late, great acting teacher and author of “Audition.”
I thought of that and of him while watching “Tell Me How I Did,” an evening of one-acts on August 6th & 10th, by up-and-coming playwright Justin McDevitt, courtesy of Cloudbusting Productions; not least because I had no idea the Duplex down on Christopher Street in the Village had a little theatre upstairs. And I do mean little.
A small space forces a playwright as well as the creative team to be inventive. Clever. They deliver, with precision directing by Jessica Harika, Lights and Sound by Armando Bravi, and making the most of that space, Stage Manager Crystal Bellant. McDevitt does not disappoint, particularly with the title one-act, “Tell Me How I Did.” Set in a farcical, dystopian future that is not too far away, Lent, a waiter (Steven Ralph, sympathetic as a symbol of all the long-suffering service industry workers everywhere) has just arrived at his spare apartment, exhausted after a long shift. He drinks bourbon out of what appears to be a cat saucer, if he had a cat, and then collapses onto a chair. Enter two sleek women in black, Axby and Bet (Cat Capece and Kayla King, clearly enjoying the bad cop-worse cop routine) from CPS – Consumer Protection Services, who are not to be messed with. They taunt Lent, rough him up, and all because of a negative consumer review on the Tell Me How I Did site. One Mariella (Thea K. Lammers, having a high time as a spoiled brat diner), complained that Lent made a face when she gave him her gum to dispose of, and worse, sang “Happy Birthday” to her off-key. It doesn’t end well, but it is worth noting that absolutely everything is subject to plebeian review on Tell Me How I Did – including CPS.
With the second one-act, “The Happy,” we are in the hybrid territory of docu-drama crossed with Edward Albee – and it works. “The Happy” depicts a Haverhill, Massachusetts, family: Kara (Jennifer Pace, wonderfully manipulative), Rose (Cat Capece, a study in arrested development), Duds (Tyler Adams, playing that guy who’s along for the ride), and Claudette, the grandmother (Steven Ralph – I’ll get to him shortly). Kara has won the lottery, so she and the rest of the family have turned up at an Orlando motel room at the behest of her embittered step-son Gabriel (Thea K. Lammers, unrecognizable and astonishing). Gabriel has also contacted a documentary film maker (Kayla King) who happens to be streaming the meeting live – unbeknownst to Gabriel. He wants to expose the family for what they are – and he does, but that comes with a terrible price.
McDevitt has a natural way with witty dialogue that does not feel forced, and he is very, very funny. Consequently, the casting of Steven Ralph as Claudette equals everything that comes out of her mouth is absolutely hilarious. This is both good and bad: good because the first half of this one-act plays like comedy-drama; bad because once most of the family, including Claudette, exit, the comedy goes with them. So the play takes a turn that bisects it into two neat halves, and I would like to see those two halves integrated. I suspect, with all of that material, that there is a full-length play in there. We who will now follow the talented Justin McDevitt will just have to wait until it comes to fruition.