A CurtainUp Feature
The Ever Blossoming Solosphere
By Elyse Sommer
For a high school drama teacher, the perfect play or musical calls for a large cast so that as many students as possible have a chance to be on stage. But for the bottom line conscious professional theater producer. a play featuring just one actor is a bonanza — more so than ever in the current dicey economy. While hardly a groundbreaking new genre, the current New York theater season is more than ever a solosphere. The big solosphere hits tend to be celebrity solos, like Carrie Fisher's Wishful Drinking which given her family tree's many celebrity branches warranted a Broadway production. At MTC, the first production at their City Center location, Nightingale, is written and performed by Lynn Redgrave who already reminisced quite successfully about her father (Shakespeare For My Father) and now draws on memories of her grandmother. Trouper that she is, Redgrave is going on despite illness, albeit with script in hand.
The Off-Broadway solosphere includes the soloist who pioneered the "verbatim play" which begins with dozens of interviews which the brilliant Anna Deavere Smith than worls into a script which she presents in the persona of the interviewee. This season's Let Me Down Easy is an at once entertaining and moving rumination on how we and the helping professionals deal with illness, with a focus on how we deal with death. Besides Smith, Off-Broadway has the usual mix of actor-writers enlivening their stage memoirs by chaneling the relatives, friends, lovers and others who were part of their journey (which tends to have a redemptive arc) — one of the most highly touted is County of Kings by a Brooklyn boy who overcame a difficult youth (an HIV infected mother, drug dealing and jail) when he discovered his poetic voice and the theater.
The Cherry Lane is a bonanza for solo performers with Antonette LaVecchia playing herself and her mother in How to Be a Good Italian Daughter (In Spite of Myself) and Judith Ivey reincarnate the advice columnist Ann Lander, once a household name for newspaper readers, in The Lady With All the Answer. written by David Rambo. On Monday nights their nearby Cherry Pit venue is literally a solo fest, featuring not one or two, but ten solists. While I'm on the subject of Fests, the popular Brits Off-Broadway Festival will include Merrick the Elepant Man, a one-man version of the classic storyk.
Music is not just background but at the core of some solos like A Boy and His Soul and Love, Linda, the Life of Mrs. Cole Porter both of which might be accurately tagged as one-person musicals. Charlayne Woodard's The Night Watcher is enhanced by short bursts of song-- this is also off the beaten path in that it focuses on Woodward's choice to be godmother and auntie to many rather than a mom to a child of her own.
Graphic projections are a favorite device for making the stage feel less underpopulated-- especially so in Carrie Fisher's and Charlayne Woodard's shows. Like The Lady With All the Answers A Disaster Begins is not written by its star, Veanne Cox, but by Ain Gordon.
As the solo show has proliferated and often given actors a vehicle easily performed here, there and everywhere (think Hal Holbrook and his Mark Twain and Chazz Palminteri's Bronx Tale, a solosphere memoir that which sent his faltering career into the stratosphere and two years ago was given an anniversary production on Broadway) — so it also means more actors are having to settle for the role that has the opening line "I'm your server. . ."
I can't say that I'm thrilled about this ever escalating trend and, with some exceptions, I'd much prefer watching actors interact with each other than count on me to be their bouncing board. I've also probably missed mentioning a solo or two but then it's a sure thing that those mentioned here will be followed by many others. To paraphrase Claudius in Hamlet:
"When solo shows come, they come not single spies