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A CurtainUp Review
Madness by Manus

by Les Gutman

South Side Cafe in the Theater District

Walking around town, we unavoidably encounter a lot of people with a screw loose. Most of us just look at each other, shrug our shoulders and march on. Not Bob Manus. He heads home, fires up his script writing software and sets about imagining what their back story might be. Or so it seems.

In this collection of five short plays, three deal with people who hear voices that aren't there and one has to do with people who have inappropriate relationships with dogs. The exegesis of the surreal fifth one (discussed immediately below) is a bit more obscure, but might be connected to the proportion of Mr. Manus's formative years spent watching TV sitcoms.

In "I Shot Ozzie and Harriet," the younger generation of the prototypical sitcom family has a few twists: Ricky (Scott Marshall) is a junkie, and David (John O'Connor) is a gay trans-sexual wannabe. Mom (Tracy Newirth) and Dad (Jed Dickson) don't notice. Predictably, the boys loathe their obliviously normal parents. But when they attempt to off them (a la the Menendez brothers), they are in for a surprise. (And so are we.) It's the best play in the bunch, featuring some priceless performances and a punchy script that sets itself up, executes and gets out, all with efficiency.

Most of the others, even the best ones, try to pack too many people into too many scenes (with attendant set changes) in too short a time. Mr. Manus has a mordant sense of humor that is sometimes overwhelmed by excess baggage.

In "Man's Best Fiend," we meet Vince (Britton Herring), who tells us he is a dogwalker and demonstrates to us that he is a creep. Dogs think so too, judging by the marks they've left on his body. When Blaine's (John O'Connor) relationship with his new girlfriend (Jenny Greeman) starts to unravel because his relationship with her dog (Harry Peerce) is lousy and her relationship with the dog is more important than her relationship with him, he hires Vince to rub out the dog. But the dog roughs him up (no pun intended) instead. In the end, everyone's in for a big surprise. This curtain-raiser is the weakest of the five plays; its biggest payoff is Peerce, who makes a great dog.

"Bobby Love and Eddie" are a ventriloquist and his dummy. They've been together for fifteen years, but still haven't gotten a laugh on the comedy circuit. In the meantime, the reality line has become blurred, and Bobby (David M. Pincus), at a minimum, is living quite vicariously through Eddie (voice of Mr. Peerce). As Bobby contemplates going solo, a loan shark (Mr. Manus) comes looking for money. Bobby's about to go onstage and needs to get a laugh like his life depends on it. Because it does. Writing comedy is hard, but writing bad comedy is even harder and sometimes funnier. Manus has written some good material here -- including a gratuitous stand-up routine for Bobby's warm-up act (Ms. Greeman), but the play never quite takes off.

After the intermission, things take an even more twisted turn. In "Cassandra's Hour," Jim (Mr. Manus) and Shelly (Joanie Schumacher) have just moved into a new home. They don't seem to get along, and Jim is unsettled by what he has learned about the previous owners: the wife killed her husband and then hung herself. The woman returns as a ghost -- her name is Cassandra (Ms. Newirth) -- and proceeds to seduce Jim into killing Shelly. Then the real terror begins. This play is wickedly clever, and quite nicely performed.

The evening's finalé is called "What?". A deliberately overwrought Shakespeare company comes apart at the seams as it attempts to perform Hamlet. Its star, the self-impressed Garth Bollingwood (Mr. Herring), hears a voice from beyond the fourth wall, which persists in bollixing up his performances. His Gertrude (Rahti Gorfien) is pissed; his director (Richard Kent Green) beside himself. It seems the voice he's hearing is his ex-lover. The performances are first-rate, and Mr. Manus's concept is terrific. Like many of the others, though, it would be even better if it were leaner.

Madness by Manus including "Man's Best Friend," "Bobby Love and Eddie," "I Shot Ozzie and Harriet," "Cassandra's Hour" and "What?"
by Bob Manus with Liz Frost, David Lewis "and/or" Wende O'Reilly
Directed by Thomas Cote
with Britton Herring, John O'Connor, Morgan Davis, Jenny Greeman, Harry Peerce, David M. Pincus, Bob Manus, Jed Dickson, Scott Marshall, Tracy Newirth, Joanie Schumacher, Rahti Gorfien, Richard Kent Green and Peter Farrell
Set Design: Tim Harris
Lighting Design: Richard Kent Green
Running time: 2 hours with 1 intermission
Workshop Theater, 312 W. 36th Street (8/9 AVS), 4th Floor
Telephone: (212) 695-4173 ext. #5
WED - SAT @8; $15
Opening July 10, 2003, closing July 26, 2003
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 7/18/03 performance

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6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
Click image to buy.
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