Michael Carlsen, Nicole Balsam, and Deborah Rayne in SPIRIT OF EXIT ELEVEN. Photo by Donna Alberico Photography.
BOTTOM LINE: Michael Puzzo's new work lays it on a little thick, but the stellar direction and cast make the finer moments of the script truly something to cheer for.
It’s Halloween night at the aptly named Smitty’s Tittys and Pies in New Jersey, and the “de facto” manager/bouncer, Butchy (Michael Carlsen), has a lot to be worried about. The Artisanal pizza place across the street has Smitty’s own pie business hurting, and not even the dancing ladies can bring the crowds back in. On top of that, Butchy must contend with contrary dancers who refuse to dress in revealing-enough Halloween costumes, the intrusive drunk who seems to live there, an interview with a new pizza chef, his own struggles as a recovering alcoholic, and the still-recent death of one of the dancers. Said dancer, Tina, also happened to be the girlfriend of Agatha (Nicole Balsam), a young dancer with Olympic aspirations, as well as the sister of Marie Therese (Deborah Rayne), a sort of matron (at the ripe age of twenty-something) of the women. Now, as they all push to move on from the death, a sort of musical haunting begins, and the emergence of Tina’s assumed spirit is profoundly affecting them all.
In Spirits of Exit Eleven, playwright Michael Puzzo seems to enjoy piling it on Butchy and the crew. In his script, Puzzo is working with several big ideas, and the result is complex and intriguing, if a bit exhausting. The biggest success is the immense amount of heart at its core. We feel for the loveable (if rough around the edges) Butchy as well as Marie Therese, the more grounded of the dancers. We buy Agatha’s need to convince the Olympic committee to make exotic dancing -- excuse me -- “pole sport,” an official competitive event. We even hold out hope for the drunken Tommy (Stephen Payne) as he struggles with faith (as well as walking a straight line) and even a mysterious young man (Shane Patrick Kearns) with an ominous connection to one of the dancers.
Overstuffed with stimulating ideas and universal concepts, Puzzo can be a bit heavy-handed. He allows his characters to flirt with theme and metaphor, which is lovely, but then the same characters often return to these concepts again and again; each time, the characters’ voices fade away and the playwright’s voice becomes too loud. At their best, the characters are lost souls proudly grabbing at moments of clarity; at their worst, they become too wise, and their revelations feel unearned.
But, these mistakes are made more forgivable by the wonderful chemistry created onstage and the honest humor in the script. The characters dance with philosophy and work to defy stereotype. “Just cause we got our asses out don’t mean we don’t got our eyes open,” says Marie Therese. And despite a life of living “g-string to g-string,” these are burdened characters clinging desperately to all the hope they can find. The authenticity of the characters make the bulkier lines more tolerable. We forgive the overly-intuitive though unearned moments (“Fear is my common-law wife — guilt too. It rises off me like steam”), perhaps because the characters are so likable.
Though there are some notable flaws in the script, the production holds tight under the direction of Frank Licato. Licato keeps the pace up, not allowing his actors to wallow too long in Puzzo’s heavier moments. And the actors do a stellar job of mining the beauty from this script. Butchy is that loveable brute archetype, but Carlsen’s performance somehow doesn’t feel like well-worn territory. Carlsen’s Butchy has a short fuse, but he comes by this honestly as he seeks to protect the business and everyone around him. The weary optimism Carlsen provides elevates Butchy to something hard to identify, something almost sacrificial and benevolent.
Carlsen’s lovely work is matched by Rayne’s Marie Therese. Haunted, figuratively and perhaps literally, by her late sister, Rayne crafts a character that is a marriage of the stereotypical Jersey stripper and someone who, like Butchy, transcends their environment. Rayne’s softer moments, lamenting the path not taken, avoiding the feelings unspoken, and performing a (believe it or not) profoundly moving pole dance, leave the audience breathless and begging for more. Balsam, Payne, and Kearns round out this lovely ensemble.
Spirits of Exit Eleven may try to take on too much at once, but the successes of this ambition piece outweigh the pitfalls. The soft moments of truth, hope, and the search for something better make it well worth the trip down to Smitty’s.
(Spirits of Exit Eleven plays at The Lion Theatre, Theatre Row, 410 West 42th Street between 9th and 10th Avenues, through February 2, 2013. Performances are Thursdays and Fridays at 8PM, as well as Wednesday, January 23rd at 8PM. Tickets are $19.25 and are available at telecharge.com or by calling 212.239.6200.)