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A CurtainUp Review

The Secret Narrative of the Phone Book

You're much too smart to just work at the phone company. What do you do really? --- Grassy Noel
I manufacture state-deployed narratives---Oona
Don't we all, when we're working for The Man? ---Grassy Noel.
Brandon Miller,  Bill Dawes &  Natalie Gold
Brandon Miller, Bill Dawes & Natalie Gold
(Photo: Peter Dressel)
Gordon Cox obviously had a grand time concocting his technospeak riddled mix of futuristic thriller, and three-way romance. It starts off entertainingly enough with two of the three people involved in the love triangle that's more about manipulation than love coming on stage passionately entangled.

It seems that we're in the woman's apartment. But when the man starts to take off his shoes and move on to the next step in the encounter, the woman stops him. Instead of heading for the bedroom, the couple proceeds to engage in a rat-a-tat-tat verbal exchange.

He tells her he's an "collage éclaté" artist who "takes apart collages by other people." When she suggests that other people would call this vandalism, he counters "other people call it nihilism but they're wrong. I have beliefs." Do people really talk like this? Is this a new kind of verbal foreplay? Unlikely. But then most people don't work for amedia manipulating conglomerate masquerading as a telephone communications company or transform ourselves into James Bondish operatives to take on such organizations.

If you bear in mind that this new play bills itself as "a romantic comedy hijacked by a conspiracy thriller," the shift from physical embrace to cat and mouse conversation does establish the conspiratorial atmosphere that permeates this new 90-minute play; nor does it keep Oona (Natalie Gold) and the mysteriously named Grassy Noel (Bill Dawes) from heading for set designer Kimo Desean's transformation of an upstage panel into a Murphy bed. The post coital scene that follows brings a moment that's more surprising than any of the convoluted action that follows.

Oona's competition for Noel's (the name he prefers people to use) affection is Seth (Brandon Miller), her colleague at the" telephone company" which works in such mysterious and sinister ways to control what is referred to as the "media stream." Unfortunately, Mr. Cox spins his murky, over-plotted tale at such an accelerated pace that the audience is never quite clear as to just what this control involves and why Noel's seduction of Oona and Seth should short circuit the conglomerate's practices (redirecting calls from journalists, trial witnesses and such to control state-approved news spin or, "Narratives").

Not to give too much away, Noel applies for a job at the narrative controlling "telephone company" which has only one other employee, Oona and Seth's platitude spouting boss Bud (John C. Vennema). It requires quite a stretch of the imagination to accept this under-staffed work place as a vast and powerful Orwellian conglomerate. Secret conversations and conspiracy theories involving topics from race to sexual discrimination abound -- alas with ever increasing implausibility. The double seduction succeeds, but Cox's play fails to make all the loose ends and improbabilities come together -- or sustain our interest. The dialogue that started out sounding clever deteriorates into sci-spy gobbledygook.

The cast is to be commended for mastering all this dense talk. Dawes, who last played another secret operative in Ears on a Beatle is due for a play with stronger theatrical legs.

The Kraine Theatre also deserves a round of applause for giving emerging playwrights an airing. While directors must stage these plays with limited budgets, there's always a sense of excitement of seeing something new and untried. As usual in this environments, these actors and set and lighting designer Kimo Desean and director Suzanne Agins do their utmost to present Mr. Cox's story to best advantage. Too bad they can't help it to rise to its satiric ambitions.

Written by Gordon Cox
Directed by Suzanne Agins
Cast: Bill Dawes, Natalie Gold, Brandon Miller and John C. Vennema
Set and Lighting Design: Kimo Desean
Costume Design: Liam O'Brien
Sound Design: Elizabeth Coleman
Running time: 1 hr 30 mins without an intermission.
Open Seating.
Horse Trade at The Kraine Theater, 85 East 4th Street, (Second Avenue and Bowery) 212-868-4444 .
Tickets: $15; $8 students (with ID)
From 2/02/05 through 2/27/05; opening 2/27/05.
Thursday-Saturday at 8:00pm

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 2/07/05 press performance
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