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A CurtainUp Review

Out at Sea and Striptease
By Jenny Sandman

I love Polish playwrights. There. I said it. Nerdy though that may sound, there's good reason. Polish playwrights (well, Eastern European writers in general) have a warped, maniacal sense of humor, drier than a good martini and more twisted than Monty Python. They also tend to write about the absurdity of everyday life--and more particularly the absurdity of everyday life under an absurd political system--something that should resonate to the heart of every twenty-first century American. Especially anyone who can appreciate the humor in Kafka.

Slawomir Mrozek is one of Eastern Europe's most famous modern playwrights and satirists, similar in style to Havel and Gombrowicz. The phrase "straight out of Mrozek" has become a permanent part of the Polish language. He began his career as a cartoonist, à la Gary Larson of Far Side, and emigrated to France in the mid-60s. His plays, of which Tango and Striptease are probably the most famous, are widely produced in Poland but are rarely seen on this side of the Atlantic. This pairing of the latter and Out at Sea last premiered in New York more than thirty years ago -- at the same La MaMa where director Paul Bargetto, a protege of Andrei Serban, has given us a sharp and witty production.

Out at Sea is the story of three men stranded at sea. Like Life of Pi, it takes a surreal twist when the fattest of the three men declares that one of the other two must be eaten. The more politically savvy of the two thin men allies himself with the fat man, leaving the hesitant, mousy third man to his fate. They hold mock elections and force a sham vote, then butter up the third man (no pun intended) with high talk of self-sacrifice to the greater good. But strangely, he buys into it, and becomes radiant with his newfound sense of purpose. The closer he comes to be eaten, the happier he becomes. The parallels to 1984 are obvious.

The play is performed on a tiny lighted platform against a blue-green background; even though the three actors are trapped on this tiny space, they keep things active by moving constantly. Bargetto has a flair for nutty details--the three men are all in tuxes; the dinnerware pulled from a trunk is really a sushi set, cute and modern enough to grace any table in Chelsea; the elections are held complete with campaign banners. Paul Todaro as the fat man is deliciously smarmy, the man you love to hate. Cornel Gabara and Troy Lavallee (the third man) are a treasure.

The charismatic and compelling Gabara and Lavallee double as the two men in Striptease, the weirder but more enjoyable of the two one-acts. This time we have two men who have been detained in a cell for no apparent reason. They don't know their crime and no one will speak to them. The first man (Lavallee) is adamant in his refusal to act; he is perfectly happy to sit quietly and await his fate, figuring that any action will only provoke the nameless authorities. The second man (Gabara) is restless--he wants to know his crime, to make contact with other inmates, to face his captors. But each time he protests, literally or figuratively, a giant white-gloved hand enters the room and will not leave until a piece of clothing is sacrificed to it. Slowly, each man is divested of his clothing, until they are down to their underwear and handcuffed together. Patriot Act, anyone?

The set is bare for this one, but the giant white hands (reminiscent of Mickey Mouse) make the piece. They're hysterical, as are the actors' reactions to them. Gabara and Lavallee have a great sense of comic timing.

Both casts have a great rapport, highlighted by Bargetto's excellent direction. He wisely concentrates on the actors, rather than the message, allowing them to bring forth the scripts' inherent brilliance. Out at Sea and Striptease make for a great night of theatre-zany, weird and very funny. With only a few days left in the short run, this is worth a trip into the brutal cold.

Written by Slawomir Mrozek
OUT AT SEA translated by Amiel Melnick and Asha Oniszczuk; STRIPTEASE translated by Lola Gruenthal
Directed by Paul Bargetto
With Cornel Gabara, Troy Lavallee, Paul Todaro and Nora Laudani
Lighting Design by Paul Bargetto Costume Design by Oana Botez-Ban
Set Design by Young-ju Baik
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
La MaMa ETC, 74A East 4th Street; 212-475-7710
Through January 18
Reviewed by Jenny Sandman based on January 9th performance

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