Monday, February 26, 2018

Review: Dating, Improv and the Apocalypse

By Ed Malin

Lenny Bruce Is Not Afraid is being presented as part of the 12th annual Frigid Festival.  Mark Levy wrote this piece, which he and Kayla Mason perform.  Kristen Kelm directs the offbeat and affecting story, which flits from moments of extreme emotional vulnerability to beats which revolve around a generous helping of weapons and Joe Coppola’s fight choreography.  How can a play set in a basement theater (which informs us it is set in a basement theater, a good hideout for a world gone wrong) achieve all this? I believe the title, a line from R.E.M.’s song “It’s The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”, says a lot.   Terrible things have happened in New York, and everywhere, and someone like the famously uncensored comedian Lenny Bruce would not be afraid.  However, as Mark’s character, a veteran of improv theater, remarks: not everyone does stand-up comedy, and sometimes you can’t just function on command.  Sometimes you need other people, and trust, and that will take quite a lot of work and bring you through much anxiety.  Let’s applaud Mark on this brave statement and read more.
It is winter in the city.  Max (Mark Levy) and Mal (Kayla Mason) are staggering home from an intense date, back to a place filled with empty beer cans.  (The set was designed by Adam Sherwin and the beer came from Sixpoint Brewery; rehearsal must have been fun!)  There is a bohemian, bachelor-bad feel, and indeed Mal mentions that they are in a dangerous area.  However, as Max exits to use the bathroom and Mal transfers a pistol from her coat to her back pocket, it becomes clear that no one in this place takes their future for granted.  Why is the date progressing so quickly, and why are the stakes so high?  It’s not something the characters want to put themselves through again, but there has apparently been a zombie apocalypse.  People have seen their friends and relatives sicken and, usually, have killed these people before they became a flesh-eating liability.  Max has been living off the grid and not long ago put some hops in his mouth to see if he could make beer that way.  Imagine his surprise when he raided a derelict Duane Reade drug store for supplies and met Mal.  The two initially fought over the last remaining box of Cheez-It crackers, and then got into heavy petting.
photo by Benjamin Davis
Neither Max nor Mal has seen another live human being for weeks and months.  It’s an eerie world, where one can wander through a Times Square which is deserted, except all the lights are still on, kind of like the opening scene of “Vanilla Sky”. No wonder Mal and Max are simultaneously excited and cautious about each other.  It’s only their first date, but is it too soon to talk about making a baby?  Does the human race need to continue, though?, as Mal conjectures, and she has lots of good reasons.  Mal is unrelenting, very focused on self-preservation but giving Max many chances to prove himself. Can Max explain why he is a virgin at age 32?  Yes, he can, and yes he wants to change that tonight.  He hasn’t “seen a naked girl since the internet went down.”   To find peace, these recently-strangers must establish trust like one does in improv.  When you see how this is done, you will be happy in a profound silence.
I know it can be difficult to relate to theater people, so it’s good that Mal is not one and Max is.  They both have an appreciation for the music of Phish; Mal saw them at Madison Square Garden one New Year’s Eve.  They both believe that the zombie virus started with Jack White of the White Stripes (see: great two-person acts), though Max is inclined to separate the man from his musical legacy.  Director Kristen Keim brings simmering conflict into the play and all of its tender awkwardness is great fun.  Some of the time it seems like these two characters have quite lot in common, creating a strain that makes it much easier for them to bump each other off.  Whatever their similarities, the reclusive Max eases many a tense situation with lines such as “You’re the only person I’ve met who doesn’t want to eat me.”  If you end up surviving the zombie apocalypse, or any day in New York City, you may wish to take some pointers from these characters.