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A CurtainUp Review

The Nuclear Family




South Side Cafe in the Theater District


Stephen  Guarino, Jimmy Bennett, John Gregorio
l-r: Stephen Guarino, Jimmy Bennett, John Gregorio
What's The Nuclear Family about? It's an approximately 75-minute long musical that no one has ever seen or is likely to see again. No readings or development workshops. No smoke and mirrors scenery and props -- just three fast on the draw guys and a pianist-composer who use a box full of audience suggested family names to create an on the spot musical about a day in the life of a wacky family.

Stephen Guarino, Jimmy Bennett, John Gregorio and Matthew Loring Cohen (the piano player and tunesmith) have been creating their here tonight and totally different tomorrow musicals at various downtown venues and can now be seen every Friday and Saturday at the Zipper Theater's Belt Annex. The small (125 seats on 2 levels) is smaller than space next door but also has a bar instead of a conventional lobby and has a trendy flavor that suits the show. To separate themselves from the common sheep path trod by other improvisational groups the "Family " has tagged what it does as "spontaneous theater."

Since any performance you see is going to have a totally different set of characters (the audience participation consists of naming and casting the characters) and sub-plots from the one I saw last Friday evening, it's pointless to detail the Ginsberg Family Saga. Whatever the name of the family you watch, it begins with breakfast and chronicles a day that is certain to be chaotic and loaded with impossible to untangle situations. Unsurprisingly, the name Ginsberg invoked a story with a lot of Jewish-related stuff and a strange number identity for the character of the mother inspired a surreal, robotic tangent.

While some nights of watching these "spontaneous theater" pieces are clearly going to be better than others, it's safe to say that their ephemeral quality is not likely to be cause for mourning a lost treasure. In fact, some of the Jewish shtick I saw (e.g.: the characters at one point jumping into an imaginary mass grave) was just tasteless enough to suggest that there will be times when once might be once too often.

Still, the emphasis on at once weird and stereotypical characters that are likely to dominate every show notwithstanding, the Nuclear troupe is intriguing to watch for its amazing knack for instant storytelling. Somehow they manage to tie all the loony stray ends into a reasonably coherent whole and occasionally introduce some genuine whimsy into the strident humor that prevails.

While each member of the threesome ranks high on energy and inventiveness and all work well together, the linchpin holding everything together is Jimmy Bennett (the robotic mother when I attended). He is a gifted, natural comedian who knows how to put flesh on even the most over-the-top character and also moves with a dancer's grace. I'd like to see Bennett star in a more carefully thought out comedy.

The contribution of Matthew Loren Cohen is also invaluable. Tickling the keys of an upright piano at the foot of the stage, he is a virtual song and instant incidental music machine. Watching him toss off a musical riff for his friends and colleagues to catch and embellish with a lyric is awe-inspiring. Unfortunately, singing is not this group's strong suite and Mr. Guarino especially tends to swallow rather than project his lyrics. If Mr. Cohen ever writes a musical intended for more permanency, I hope it will feature more musically gifted singers.

No doubt, you'll find yourself watching The Nuclear Family for signs of little tricks the group uses to communicate with each other. Are those frequent burst of dancing and leaping across and off the narrow stage planned moveable pauses to figure out what to do next? Are those brief disappearing acts behind the pegboard panels positioned on either side of the stage to hold the many wigs and falls hasty planning conferences? Maybe, yes; maybe, no. Even sitting right in front of the stage as I did, I left the theater none the wiser about how these magicians pulled their character details and lyrics out from beneath their wigs.

The Nucelear Family
Conceived and Performed -- "spontaneously" --by Stephen Guarino, Jimmy Bennett, John Gregorio
Musical Director: Matthew Loren Cohen
Lighting Design: Brendan Fey
Running time: 60 to 75 minutes, depending on the performance
Zipper-Belt, 336 W. 37th St., 212-239-6200 or www.thenuclearfamily.net
From 8/29/03; opening 9/10/03
Fridays and Saturdays at 10 pm

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on September 5th special 8pm performance

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metaphors dictionary cover
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