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A CurtainUp Review
Critical Darling

I don't care if 50 years from now little fairies can skip down Sunset singing 'I'm homosexual' or some other Rodgers and Hart tune at the tops of their voices; this curse will always be a curse. No one else will be obligated to define themselves with a word based on their predilections in the bedroom. .
--- Frank, a rich British aristocrat and writer, who is somewhat prescient in visualizing Gay Pride type of parades, but too uptight about 1939 mores to see his own homosexuality as anything but a curse.
Mark Jacoby and Andrew Polk
Mark Jacoby and Andrew Polk (Photo: Monique Carboni )
When I first heard about the New Group's "naked" series -- a euphemism for low budget shows -- I thought, oh, no, another entry into the solo show invasion. Happily, Barry Levey's Critical Darling, the second play in the series, features four actors (all excellent). The tight budget is evident in the program which consists of with all the pertinent details squeezed to fit both sides of a single sheet of paper and the simple but effective staging by director Ian Morgan.

Since I arrived early I found myself watching everyone pass the the Lion Theatre's entryway on their way to see the New Group's big buzz show, Hurlyburly (my review) playing in the same Theatre Row complex on West 42nd Street. By curtain time, however, most of the seats in this smallest and least appealing of the five theaters were filled. At the end of the intermissionless play, I think all who came seemed glad they did. Critical Darling, though unlikely to cause quite the stir of Hurlyburly or to have an extended New York run, does provide an opportunity to see a well-written play about friendship and identity in a world that is caught up in the madness of the Hitler era -- all for just a few dollars more than a movie ticket.

While the examination of closeted homosexuality in the days before gay pride and gay marriages is nothing new, Levey's story is flavored with the aura of Europeans abroad as the winds of war are about to devastate and change the world. The setting of a New Mexico artists' colony and the subtext of ambition's effect on friendship add texture to this flavor. As Texas Homos (my review), another recent off-Broadway play with a more down-home, American setting made plain, there are still men who tend to separate secret sexual encounters from genuine relationships and refuse to be counted as openly homosexual.

The character Levey has buried in the deepest recesses of "the closet" is a rich fifty-ish Englishman, Sir Frank Willis (Mark Jacoby), a once respected writer who still scribbles in an ever present notebook but whose life now revolves around funding other artists' work. This includes the famous like Salvador Dali (there's a lot of fun name dropping in the script) to those desperate to get a toehold on fame before it's too late. Falling into the latter category are Frank's long-time (same age) friends, the talented but unrecognized poet Evie Standpoor (Elizabeth Hess) and Gerald Headly (Andrew Polk), a dissipated and gay philosopher and would-be spiritual guru.

Frank and Evie have a long-term very close friendship and have been in the United States for four years trying to get her never started career going and to bring a fresh bloom to his fading one. Both have lived in denial about the reason their love has never gone to another level, with her too deluded or naive to see why he's had a parade of young male secretaries. The impetus to finally propose marriage to Evie is the arrest for sex with a young male movie star Tyrone Power (Power's bi-sexuality was long the subject of the Hollywood rumor mill) which has thrown Frank into a fit of nervous anxiety. Determined to change what he sees as the degenerate habits that have tormented him since he was a boy, Frank has traded his secretaries for the spiritual guidance of Headly who, like Evie, wants a share of Frank's financial largess and who injects a good deal of ironic humor into the play.

To add to the immediacy of the drama, plans are afoot for a musicale gala to showcase Evie's poetry, for which she's hiredDaniel Weiland (Daniel London) Weiland is a young émigré, from Prague who, unlike the three older people, has been embraced by Hollywood as a musical wunderkind. It turns out that he and Frank met at a party and that Daniel wants Frank to commit to a real, emotional relationship. Frank thus becomes sort of a ping-pong ball between Daniel and and Evie. I'll leave it to you to fnd out who, if anyone, wins in this game of love and friendship.

My only reservation about the actors' performances pertain to the British accents. It's not that anyone slips in and out of their accents, but that the Brit-speak never seems natural and relaxed. This is especially true for Jacoby. Otherwise, director Morgan has skillfully maneuvered the actors through the script, allowing the humor to turn these basically tragic events into an entertaining and often moving ninety minutes.

Critical Darling
Written by Barry Levey
Directed by Ian Morgan
Cast: Elizabeth Hess, Mark Jacoby, Daniel London, Andrew Polk
Set Design: Peter R. Feuchtwanger
Costume Design: Deirdre Wegner
Lighting Design: S. Ryan Schmidt
Sound Design: Matt Sherwin
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
The New Group (naked) at Lion Theatre in Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street 212.279.4200
2/19/05 to 3/05/05
Wed - Sat at 8pm
Tickets: $15
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on February 23rd performance
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