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|A CurtainUp Review
The Flid Show
-- original review By Jenny Sandman
It sounds like a thoroughly suspicious idea for a play: a lounge singer, born without arms because of thalidomide, is visited by three spirits à la A Christmas Carol who attempt to help him on his quest for self-acceptance. But somehow, playwright Richard Willett has made this unique story work without the play becoming either tacky or maudlin. In fact, it's quite touching, and very funny in places.
Thalidomide is the infamous sleeping pill marketed heavily in the late fifties and early sixties to pregnant women as a morning sickness cure. Those unfortunate mothers who took the drug gave birth to babies with severe birth defects, most missing arms or legs (or both). An estimated 10,000 babies were born with these defects before the drug was finally pulled off the market. Now, of course, even a simple bottle of aspirin has a warning label advising pregnant women to consult their doctors before taking any drug; and it is largely because of thalidomide that these warnings exist. Interestingly, there is also renewed interest in bringing thalidomide back since new research has shown it's effective in treating symptoms of cancer, leprosy, and possibly even AIDS.
In The Flid Show ("flid" being a nickname for those thalidomide-affected babies, who couldn't pronounce the word "thalidomide" and instead shortened it to "flid"), Duncan Mowbray is a 40-year-old lounge singer born without arms. Thanks to the help of his sister Brenda, who has been his caretaker for all of his adult life, Duncan is able to lead a normal existence. He languishes in a back-alley dive, fearing that publicity will bring the wrong sort of audience--that he will become famous for being a freak, not for being a good performer. When he begins to fall for a pretty (if clumsy) American doctor, he is visited by three "spirits," incarnations of other people whose lives were affected by thalidomide--most notably a former F.D.A. worker. They take Duncan through the story of his mother's pregnancy, her ongoing anguish and guilt during his childhood, and the stories of all those other people, mothers and babies. Ultimately, he's able to conquer some of his fear and self-doubt.
The stories that the spirits tell Duncan are wrenching --mothers who killed their babies rather than raise "monsters," women who requested but were denied abortions, women who were blamed by doctors and friends and neighbors for their abnormal children. And, of course, the children themselves.
We hear both sides of the story. That includes the scientists and doctors employed by the drug company who fought to keep thalidomide on the market even after the reports of birth defects.
If Willett dwelled on the sad stories, his play would swiftly have become mired in sentimentality. Instead, the stores are offered as counterpoint to Duncan's own story. There's also some welcome comic relief from the brash Canadian F.D.A. worker (the first spirit).
The production itself is lovely, with beautiful lighting and scrim work. Director Eliza Beckwith is an old pro at collaborating with Willett, having directed his previous shows Hot Air, Triptych and Random Harvest. Her direction is simple and elegant, letting the story speak for itself.
The ensemble of actors is very strong, especially Lawrence Lau as Duncan, Suzanna Hay as the Canadian Frances Kelsey, Kim Donovan as Rachel Stohl, the American doctor, and Katherine Heasley Clarvoe as Brenda, Duncan's long-suffering sister. Lau is not the world's greatest singer, but he's a fine actor nonetheless. He and Donovan have great chemistry together, and his performance is graceful and powerful. Clarvoe creates a most personable sister, and Hay is often hysterical as the blunt Canadian F.D.A. worker.
Despite this background , The Flid Show is enjoyable. Certainly, it's a unique story, well-performed and well-told.
Mendes at the Donmar
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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