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A CurtainUp Review

Squeeze Box
By Simon Saltzman

I want more than anything for my life to change, but I don't know how . -Ann Randolph

Playwright/performer Ann Randolph
Playwright/performer Ann Randolph (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Playwright/performer Ann Randolph augmented her college days by working at the Athens State Mental Hospital in Ohio and, as she tell us in her one-woman show Squeeze Box, "taking chronic schizophrenics on road trips" and "having fun and playing games with the mentally ill." Her program bio reveals that she began her career writing a comedy for the patients. But it is the ten years she subsequently worked at a women's homeless shelter ("for the residentially challenged") in Los Angeles that provides the content of Squeeze Box, which received both the Los Angeles Ovation Award and LA Weekly award for Best Solo Show in 2002. In it, the wide-eyed, tall, slim and endearingly energized Randolph shares with us her commitment to working with the mentally challenged and the homeless as well as following her circuitous path to self-fulfillment.

Except for a guitar, a chair and a banjo (they will be given their obligatory but somewhat insignificant due), Randolph performs her 70 minute monologue on a bare stage. Randolph's commitment, however, is complicated by the feeling that her underpaid and underappreciated work is leading her nowhere. Her life is further distressed by what she sees as her general lack of self-esteem and her failure to find a boyfriend. This is remedied quickly. She meets Harold, an accordion player, via an internet dating service by using the following description: "Beauty, brains, Brahms, backpack and blowjobs." Okay, she's honest, crude, and forthcoming. But is she serious or not?

That question is answered to some extent as the rubbery-faced Randolph plays herself, boyfriend Harold and others in the homeless shelter. Getting most of her attention, however, is Brandy, a foul-mouthed paranoid schizophrenic crack head. Another vivid character that Randolph creates is Julie, a clueless goody-goody volunteer sent from Christ the King Salvation Center to raise the consciousness of the homeless through "imagination."

Unfortunately, it is imagination and excitement that is lacking in this dramatic enactment. Randolph's experiences and encounters as a conflicted "night shift" aide at the homeless shelter are not all that shocking or dramatically involving. Nevertheless, they, at least, apparently lead her to her subsequent epiphany following a concert at which her boyfriend Harold dedicates an original composition for accordion (hence the title) to her. At a post-concert party she sees to what extent Harold has been fulfilled by his talent. However, a concurrent incident makes her suddenly realize ("I can't change anybody's life but my own") what she must do to find her own joy and fulfillment.

Randolph is unquestionably adept as a story-teller, as she relates her relationships with the patients, the hospital staff, and, of course, her romantic adventures with Harold, whom she describes with perhaps too much intimate detail. But, her well-meaning text comes up short in creating a particularly compelling central character (which she undoubtedly is) or a play that builds upon the element of surprise or urgency. Humor is scarce, as is any real poignancy.

As conscientiously written and vigorously performed, Squeeze Box, attempts to fit into the category one-person shows that have been structured by actresses who insightfully portray/reveal aspects of themselves, as have Lisa Kron, Margaret Cho, and Leslie Ayvasian, among others. Randolph's play appears as a self-serving purge rather than as propellant for a political or social mission, as do the one-woman shows of Eve Hensler, Anna Deveare Smith, and Sara Jones.

Squeeze Box may prompt critics and theatergoers alike to ponder the phenomenon and the proliferation of one-woman shows (let's omit the men, on this occasion). One person shows, in general, are a hard sell to the public and often considered less than a fully-realized legitimate dramatic enterprise. If the performer and writer are one and the same, the prospect of a modestly produced entertainment -- be it a play, lecture, stand up comedy routine, concert or confessional -- can actually help fill a void in one's career and provide exposure. It is apparent that Squeeze Box is doing just that for Randolph. There is no denying that her play has potential but, even under the presumably supportive direction of Alan Bailey, it is missing a firm dramatic structure.

While the commercial aspects are weighted in favor of bankable stars that chose instead to portray famous people such as Julie Harris as Emily Dickenson; Mary Louise Wilson as Diana Vreeland, and currently Tovah Feldshuh, as Golda Meir (to mention a few), it is admirable that film and stage star Anne Bancroft, the producer of Squeeze Box would put her money behind a show that evidently touched her heart -- but not the heart of some audience members. There were a couple of walkouts during the press/preview performance I attended, an unconscionable, insensitive, and distracting thing to do during a short play with no intermission.

Written and Performed by Ann Randolph
Directed by Alan Bailey
Cast: Ann Randolph
Set Design: no credit; Props: guitar, chair, and a banjo
Costume Design: no credit
Lighting Design: Jonathan Spencer Vocal Coach: Rod Menzies
Additional Music Arrangements: Bill Schimmel
Sound Design: No credit
Running time: 70 minutes, no intermission
Acorn Theater at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd Street; 212 - 239 - 6200 From 07/22/04 to 10/17/04; opening 07/27/04
Reviewed by Simon Saltzman based on 07/25/04 matinee
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