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A CurtainUp Review: F-Stopby Les Gutman
This modest production introduces us not only to a new play, but to a new playwright as well. Olga Humphrey's New York debut presents a work that is not just new, it's fresh. It's presented in a manner that you certainly would not call avant garde, but it feels neither traditional nor trendy nor derivative either. It has an air of originality, not yet another play that treads familiar ground. Though it's far from perfect -- Humphrey strains for laughs that aren't always there, and heads down paths we don't really need to follow -- it's a generally well-developed piece that's uncommonly appealing.
After a few quick expositional scenes, we find ourselves in a war-torn Central African dictatorship. Susanne Ferrante (Patricia Randell), beloved in certain quarters as the internationally known martial arts film character Chop Susie, is here softening her image by "UNICEFing". She can best be described as a cross between Bruce Lee and Kathie Lee Gifford; the imprint of Audrey Hepburn she's looking for is still in formation. Caleb Lawe (Christopher Burns) has been sent along to photograph her. He's a Rhodes Scholar, conflicted over his public perception as a paparazzo and his self-described persona as a "chronicler of our age". On the ground in Africa, he is jolted to find their local contact is his old Oxford girlfriend, Charlotte Wingate (Rebekka Grella), now not-too-happily married.
Also on the scene are two poles of the indigenous population, a vicious dictator called simply The General (Charles Johnson), and a well-read, upwardly mobile member of the abused rebel class, Ken Motuba (Vincent D'Arbouze). The General is Ms. Humphrey's most overwrought character, the one she has the toughest time making funny, perhaps not surprisingly. Johnson's performance is also the least satisfying of the bunch, largely because of this. It is discordantly two-dimensional in a cast of characters that is otherwise rather remarkably well embossed. Ken, in particular, is astutely portrayed, as he first persuades Caleb to let him be his assistant, and soon wins enough of a place in everyone's heart to become pivotal to the story. D'Arbouze is as meticulous as he is winsome.
The General, we learn, is a huge fan of Chop Susie, and Susanne becomes immersed in the fine art of diplomacy as a result. She is not a character we instantly love, but Randell conveys her career-driven, insensitive essence effectively, even if her character grows in a way that seems more convenient to the plot resolution than to plausibility. Grella's Charlotte, though less important, is quite believable in her incipient idealism, the realism borne of her relationship with the local culture, and in her chemistry with both Caleb and Susanne. Caleb is the integral glue that holds the production together, and Burns is excellent. A half dozen supporting characters are ably performed by Heland Lee; the duo of Bill McCarty and James Thomas alternate the duties for two more. (I'm not certain which of the two we saw.)
In Eliza Beckwith's hands, Humphrey's scenes fall into one another nicely, including several which parody the martial arts genre cleverly. Even when it doesn't make you laugh, F-Stop gets you to think, and to smile without saying cheese.