Half-Mass

critical-mass-playCritical Mass
The Lion Theater at Theater Row, NYC
Through November 7, 2010

Imagine this: You arrive at the Lion Theater for a performance of Critical Mass, just as intermission is ending. Frustrated and annoyed with yourself for being late, you seat yourself as the second act commences. For the most part, you truly enjoy it -- and so you mentally kick yourself for missing the first act. The reality: If you had been on time, you may have experienced a frustration and annoyance equaling or surpassing that of having been late.

Towards the end of Act One, as I was getting impatient to depart, one of the secondary characters made their first appearance. Quite suddenly the energy changed, and Act One concluded with a strong hint that what follows might justify sticking around.

The playwright, Joanne Sydney Lesser, is not at fault. The play is well-written throughout, and the second act was rather enjoyable. Lines ineffectively punched for laughter in the first act, with few exceptions got their due in the second. Absent in Act Two was the sluggish direction and uneven acting of the first half. The principle actors, Leigh Williams, Zac Hoogendyk, and Aaron Davis, who in Act One appear incapable of playing off one another to effect, redeem themselves after the intermission. Mr. Davis, as the protagonist, who embodied the bombastic charmlessness of those who follow the "Val Kilmer" school of acting in Act One, gave a more watchable performance in the second act. In short, Act One was played with all the tepid verve of a TV sitcom pilot that got shelved. Act Two was acceptably engaging, if not the finest theater.

The story is of a married couple, both respected opera critics. The husband, Norman Greenleaf (Zac Hoogendyk) reviews recordings. The wife, Carrie Greenleaf (Leigh Williams), reviews live performances. Norman is something of a nebbish; Carrie an opinionated bitch. The critical team gives tenor Stefano Donato harsh reviews, and he is fired from the Metropolitan Opera and his European contracts cancelled. Stefano concocts a plan of revenge which has him moving in with the Greenleafs with the intention of ruining their lives, as his life in opera has been destroyed. Along the way there are intermittently amusing witticisms about the ways of opera criticism, some hilarious antics and so on.

Zac Hoogendyk lacked the right energy while playing a man weak in character. It is the kind of nebbish role at which Jack Lemmon excelled, with his tentative kind of charm and heart. Was Mr. Hoogendyk merely under-directed?

In Act One, Leigh Williams, was decidedly off in setting her character as a bitch with hidden vulnerability. She did not come across as believable. In Act Two Ms. Williams hit the mark, and it was a pleasure to watch her.

Aaron Davis, as the thickly accented and wounded Italian tenor, gave an abrasive performance in Act One, which I suppose was true to the play, but absent was any of a conniver's charm. In the second act, Stefano, though still very much a jerk, becomes something of mensch -- and as the play concludes shows he can really can sing.

Shorey Walker, as Francesca Donato, Stefano's hidden and then revealed mate, did a nice comic/poignant turn in her various broad disguises. Laura Faith, is also very good in her role as Catherine Rhino, a ridiculed and mediocre young opera hopeful, inadvertent home wrecker and equally inadvertent success.

Marc Geller, portrayed Cedric West, the editor of Opera Magazine, an extremely pretentious homosexual, dramatically posing as he delivered his lines in an arch Bette Davis manner. That the audience found his performance amusing was irksome. The role required a lot more Clifton Webb and a lot less Charles Pierce.

Why the merits of the second act were absent in the first is open to speculation: After all, the later half of the play showed that the director, Donald Brenner, as well as the actors, could have produced a performance equal to the caliber of the second act. It would be interesting to see the play in a more fully realized production, one worthy of playwright Lessner's good work.

Is Critical Mass -- as presented -- worth the two hours plus in the theater? The proceeds from the play will benefit The Lustgarten Foundation, dedicated to funding pancreatic cancer research, so there is a reason to attend (not withstanding my critical nattering). And besides, paraphrasing the Greenfields' dialogue in Critical Mass: "It was not a wholly good evening's entertainment nor was is a wholly bad evening's entertainment." - Jay Reisberg

jay-reisberg-photo

Mr. Reisberg is a UCLA film school grad, professional singer, comedian, assistant to the founder of New York's Love Street Theatre and bon vivant at large.

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