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A CurtainUp Review

Contrary to most plays mounted today the Judith Anderson stage is kept dark until the lights go up on Goose-Pimples. Very effective -- since it allows the glossy black and silver and leopardpatterned decor to hit you squarely between the eyes. This exquisitely nouveau glitz set by Kevin Price couldn't be in better, more appropriate to Mike Leigh's dark comedy of bad taste; neither could Eric Becker's costumes. Vernon, (Sam Rockwell), the first character to step into this picture of upwardly mobile mediocrity is dressed and coifed to match both the color scheme and the taste level.

The 5-member ensemble, directed with panache by Scott Elliott, is topnotch. Adam Alexi-Malle is so expressively on the button as a hapless Saudi-Arabian sheep farmer mistaken for an oil potentate, that I quickly stopped wondering how Anthony Sher handled the role in London. Caroline Seymour gives the best dumb blonde portrait I've seen in a long time and Gillian Foss is the personification of avariciousness -- be it for food, sex or trendy possessions.

Like everything produced by the enterprising New Group, Goose-Pimples is not quite what its advance description leads you to expect. It has all the earmarks of a farce: Vernon has invited his fellow car salesman Irving (Max Baker) and his wife Frankie (Gillian Foss) with whom he's having an affair (which Irving suspects but has not yet acknowledged) to dinner. Vernon's flat mate Jackie (Ms. Seymour) has brought home a non-English speaking Saudi-Arabian (Mr. Alexi-Malle) who thinks she's a prostitute and while she thinks he's a millionaire. The intersecting desires of this quintet leads to the requisite pratfalls and madcap traffic through strategically positioned doors--two cleverly angled portals to two unseen bedrooms and a kitchen. But unlike a farce, which sorts itself out before the last door is slammed, this is a sort of anti-farce. The tensions escalate and the expected explosions follow. Unexpectedly, chaos remains chaos. The shouting stops but nothing is made right and everyone is left lonely and miserable.

So why didn't I (or the audience at the performance I attended) laugh harder? Why didn't the anti-farcical denouement resonate? Why didn't I leave this party from hell more satisfied and convinced that I'd seen a truly fresh comedic look at the tawdry social values spawned by Margaret Thatcher -- (the play takes place in 1981 Thatcher-happy north London) -- and her political counterparts elsewhere? Mainly, because Goose-Pimples provides more lasting pleasure from the stylishness of its parts than the sum of its satisfactions as a fully realized, character rich social comedy.

The design elements add immeasurably to Mr. Leigh's scathing indictment of the new class of yup-wardly mobile lower class vulgarians but they can't turn a thin soup into a sustaining meal. And good as they are, neither can the actors make characters the playwright himself seems to despise the least bit sympathetic. Ms. Seymour's Jackie has moments of vulnerability but she is so irredeemably dumb that it seems useless to root for her. It's unlikely that she'll ever trade in her brainless dreams and aimless drinking for a modicum of common sense. Mr. Alexi-Malle's Muhammed makes the closest thing to a claim on our sympathy. If he says anything to reflect his own intellectual vacuousness, false superiority and bigotry, at least it's in a non-English babble we don't understand. However, he is, like everyone else at this party, trapped in a predictable situation that can only end in a shouting match followed by exhausted exits. Any pity we feel for these people who've swallowed the promise of a better life without having a clue as to how to live it, fades besides the relief at seeing the last of them.

Mr. Leigh has a terrific ear for conversations that say nothing and are punctuated by manic bursts of laughter, incisive looks and sudden awkward silences. The actors, as already mentioned, are fully attuned to the nuances of these speech patterns. However, some of the sight gags, like Vernon's chef's apron emblazoned with breasts and a heart-shaped vagina, too often make what's supposed to be an incisive dark comedy feel like an episode from Are You Being Served.

Apparently when this comedy first played in England, audiences and critics were as divided as they are likely to be here. Therefore, since New Group tickets are always reasonably priced, I can only say, see for yourself wether it's your cup of tea or not.

One caveat, however, every character smokes cigarettes and there's second hand smoke from at least one lit cigarette during the entire two hours. What's more this is not herbal cigarette smoke but the real thing. If you're sensitive to the evil weed, insist on back-of-the-theater seats (they're cheaper too!). Mr. Elliott deserves kudos for his commitment to The New Group but he ought to reconsider condoning the use of cigarettes on stage for the sake of his actors as well as the audience. Poor Caroline Seymour, has my particular sympathy since she was also exposed to excessive on-stage smoke in Present Laughter (also helmed by Mr. E.).

GOOSE-PIMPLES Presented by the New Group
By Mike Leigh
Directed by Scott Elliott
With: Sam Rockwell Caroline Seymour, Max Baker Gillian Foss and Adam Alexi-Malle
Presented by the New Group
Anderson Theater, 422 West 42nd St. (279-4200)
Performances began 11/28/97-1/18/98; opened 12/18/97
Reopening 1/23/98 at the Intar Theatre, 420 W. 42nd St.
Reviewed 12/23/97 Elyse Sommer
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©Copyright December 1997, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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