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A CurtainUp Review
Elvis and Juliet
Certainly the problems with this show don't arise from a lack of effort. The set design by Ray Recht is simple but effective, highlighting the differences between the two families nicely (the replacement of Elvis portraits in the Lesleys' home with those of various authors in the Jones' is a particularly nice touch), and the costume design by Ingrid Maurer is excellent--occasionally inspired. The first appearance in the Jones' home of Art Lesley, Elvis-impersonator patriarch, is about as stunning an entrance as you're likely to see this far east of the MGM Grand! And director Yvonne Conybeare keeps the pace of the show light and quick; if the action may seem even a bit rushed at times, this is far preferable to taking this absurd a premise too seriously by dragging through the lines.
The production isn't lacking star power either. A cast which includes Haskell King in the title role of Elvis, Lori Gardner as his soulmate Juliet, and the rest of the actors as various family members is headlined by David Rasche (a New York and regional stage regular, also known for his work in the title role of the TV show Sledge Hammer in the eighties) as Uncle Joey and the inimitable Fred Willard (the playwright's husband) as Art Lesley. Rasche turns in a particularly effective performance. A "Rat-Pack" tribute artist, Joey has some surprisingly thoughtful moments and his character is by far the play's most interesting and developed. Willard's portrayal is unfortunately not up to this standard. Best known for playing the role of a easily distracted and not overly bright sidekick alongside Martin Mull in Fernwood 2Nite, he seems miscast here as the supposedly confident, charismatic and over the top Art. Willard may have the needed presence to play an Elvis impersonator, but his heart doesn't seem to be in this performance.
Still, it's hard to blame the cast for ultimately it's the play that poses the biggest hurdles for the production to overcome. It's just not that funny, certainly not over a sustained two hour period. Some of the jokes seem not only dated but pretty obvious. The play is set in 1989, when it was apparently first written, but a little bit of tweaking could have modernized it easily enough. And all the moments that are funny require a lot of setup which in many cases undercuts coherency. Lisa Marie Lesley (played as well as can be expected by Christy McIntosh) is a good example of this incoherency within the characters: allegedly a stereotypically ditsy blonde who loves Madonna and doesn't understand what's going on most of the time, Lisa Marie is supposed to be the obvious foil for a number of comic moments. But she goes in and out of "self-awareness" so much (rolling her eyes at her parents' embarrassing behavior one second, to laughing uproariously at the equally embarrassing jokes they tell the next) that it's often impossible to get the point of her character at all. Most of the characters demonstrate the same problem, making it impossible for them to come off as nuanced and real people, even in a comic way. And after creating these obvious stereotypes, in each case the playwright adds an additional completely incomprehensible and inconsistent trait, presumably to give the characters some kind of depth.
But these confusing rather than complex characterizations only make the play more incoherent. For example: Juliet's brother Roberto (Justin Schultz), who is named after Roberto Clemente due to the family's love of baseball (a love which is neither explained nor understandable, given the family's other tastes), blithely speaks Latin with his younger sister and parents around the house, but enjoys rap. He finds his parents to be boring "squares," but also "loves it when they sing" (badly).
According to the playwright's program note this work originally sprang from an assignment for a playwriting class and in some ways its roots are still visible in this production. A lot of polishing would help the flow of the performance. Under current conditions, Elvis and Juliet is marginally entertaining, but not worth a forty dollar ticket.
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