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A CurtainUp Review
A User's Guide to Hell
By Elyse Sommer
But judging from his newest play, A User's Guide to Hell, Mr. Blessing isn't blessed with a gift for satiric fables. Making super Ponzi schemer Bernard, Madoff the character being guided through an absurdist vision of hell, is a promising enough idea and adding a title tag "Featuring Bernard Madoff" certainly is a clever way to use Madoff's notoriety to help sell tickets to this flawed production.
Unlike master satirist-farceur Christopher Durang's delightful 2005 fantasy Miss Witherspoon , Blessing's exploration of the after life is more tedious than clever or funny. The farcical elements come off as too broad, too obvious, too shticky. And the surprise twist the playwright has concocted comes off as forced and less than thought provoking.
Durang's play didn't need a world famous character sinc it had the advantage of being launched with Kristine Nielsen, his most devoted and able interpreter, to turn Miss Witherspoon's post-suicide tour of the after life into a funny and touching tour-de-farce. While I've liked David Deblinger in the past, director Nichole Blancosino seems to have encouraged him to make Verge, his Dante-like, New York working class tour guide, deliver all his lines at shouting level. The same is true for Edward James Hyland's Madoff.
The residents of hell we meet, all played by Erika Rose and Eric Sutton, represent various belief systems. Unfortunately, most are cartoonishly over the top and predictable. Sutton does have an amusing bit as the doorman at Madoff's former condo that's in the heart of Blessing's vision of Manhattan as hell. On the other hand, could any audience member possibly fail to anticipate 9/11 suicide bomber Mohammad Atta's "70 virgins" response to Madoff's question as to what he's looking for besides hurting Jews?
Adding to the off-putting screaming that dominates the Verge/Madoff conversation, is the repeated use of blinding lights. Even the most enjoyable moment during which a four-member chorus bursts on stage singing an excerpt from Beethoven's 9th Symphony, is spoiled by bathing the singers in a too intense light.
I'm afraid, this surreal but rather flat-footed little play left me more exhausted than stimulated. It did give me another reason to be mad at Bernard Madoff. If it weren't for his outrageous Ponzi scheme, Lee Blessing would have never come up with the conceit of A User's Guide in Hell.