By Daniel Reitz; Directed by Paul Schnee
Part of the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival
Off Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 8.23.16
VENUE #13: Players Theatre, 115 MacDougal Street
THIS SHOW IS PART OF FRINGE ENCORES, PLAYING AT SOHO PLAYHOUSE FROM 9.11 to 10.17.
FOR TICKETS AND MORE INFO VISIT sohoplayhouse.com.
by Shani R. Friedman on 8.18.16
Alex Emanuel, Will Dagger, and Asa James in Pucker Up and Blow. Photo by Thomas Lyons McHugh.
BOTTOM LINE: A young veteran of children’s theatre tries not to get screwed in his very explicit Broadway debut.
David Kimball (Will Dagger) is newly arrived in New York, fresh-faced and direct from the Midwest where his Velveteen Rabbit earned him acclaim and gave him the stones to come to the big city. He’s going to need them after he’s cast in the latest shocker by extreme provocateur Robert Forsyth (Asa James), which features, like Robert’s other theatrical contributions, simulated sex and abundant nudity.
The show is, as Robert explains, “an epic about racism in America—but in a sense it’s about a retarded 16-year old from the South and his white supremacist brother who, in order to make money to start a neo-Nazi group to start a war against all minorities, sells his retarded brother into sexual slavery. It’s not porn. It’s Broadway.” Mind you, Robert has hired a stage sex choreographer (Shane Allen) who’s an expert in simulated sex, and with his very hands-on thrusting and pumping in rehearsals, is hilariously enthusiastic about his job.
Sweet-natured David had reluctantly auditioned for the part of the disabled teenager, and is more hesitant than excited when he gets the call. His co-worker Melora (Sydni Beaudoin) doesn’t understand his skittishness, yelling at him that it’s “the most hyped show coming to Broadway!” She seduces him and then, in a not-so-shocking twist, gets cast as the love interest of Kevin (Jeremy Burnett), much to David’s justifiable dismay. Kevin is a big-name rapper-turned-actor who is largely responsible for the advance ticket sales. As Kevin and Melora play the love story against which the white supremacist backdrop is set, it’s of course no surprise when life imitates art.
As the cast goes from read-throughs to rehearsals, Reitz’s script deftly courts laughs and discomfort in equal measure. David gets into a drunken, jealous altercation with Kevin and challenges Robert, who becomes openly hostile and strives to make rehearsal as humiliating and excruciating for David (and the audience) as possible. That Robert is a craven fraud is apparent from the many times he refers to himself as “the most inflammatory playwright” in theatre, as well as the casual ease with which he says “retarded,” and that he freely admits to artless, context-free writing. It’s a testament to Dagger that David’s attempts to navigate through this minefield with dignity intact are keenly felt, even as the character becomes less likeable as he loses the battle to not let his innocence become compromised.
David’s one friend is Lenny (Alex Emanuel), who plays the pedophile in Robert's play. Initially dismissive of David, Lenny becomes his unlikely and unexpected confidante; he tries to quell David’s fears about being completely naked, and gives David a new perspective as he vents about Melora’s cheating. As Lenny, Emanuel steals the show, his delivery getting many well-earned laughs. Even when Lenny reads the Times review of his performance (“creepily effective”), it’s pitch-perfect funny.
My main criticism about Pucker Up and Blow is with the end. Rather than either a purely uplifting finale or a bitterly dark one, we get a narrative arc—good guy put through emotional meat grinder who doesn't emerge without some lasting scabs—that feels inevitable. But perhaps for an actor chasing the big Broadway dream, it’s the most honest. Reitz and Schnee have crafted a thought-provoking, funny, and sometimes shocking production, which is exactly what you look for in the Fringe.
(Pucker Up and Blow plays at VENUE #13: Players Theatre, 115 MacDougal Street, through August 23, 2016. The running time is 1 hour 40 minutes. Remaining performances are Tue 8/16 at 6:45; Fri 8/19 at 4:30; and Tue 8/23 at 2. There is no late seating at FringeNYC. Tickets are $18 and are available at fringenyc.org. For information about and tickets to this show's Fringe Encores run, visit sohoplayhouse.com.)
Pucker Up and Blow is by Daniel Reitz. Directed by Paul Schnee.
The cast is Shane Allen, Sydni Beaudoin, Jeremy Burnett, Will Dagger, Alex Emanuel, Asa James and Chandra Thomas.