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Midway through Al Carmines’ jauntily idiotic musical Wanted, Billy the Kid rushes to the aid of his pistol-packin’ girlfriend Starr Faithful Brown. She’s been wounded in an ambush that, according to David Epstein’s time-and-logic-bending script, may be connected to the capturing of Patty Hearst, will likely impact on the rights of Native Americans, and definitely involves a gartered-and-stockinged FBI chief.
“Don’t try to sing,” murmurs Billy tenderly, as he plucks a suction-cup arrow from his beloved’s breast.
She doesn’t, but only because the authors have Ma Barker, John Dillinger, and a cloak-and-daggerish creature named Alistine, Captain of the Pussy Posse, waiting in the wings. Composer Carmines keeps melodies flowing so profligately in Wanted that everyone in Woolly Mammoth’s 11-member cast gets a show-stopper or two. Starr (played as a sweetly murderous ingenue by Dana Gillespie) has already seduced the gender-conflicted Billy (Brian Quenton Thorne) with a country-and-western ballad and joined him in an uptempo paean to Wild West partnership. It’s someone else’s turn.
And folks are lining up. Sister Powhattan Lace will whip the outlaws into a politically incorrect frenzy in “The Indian Benefit Ball.” Johnnie Dillinger and his cohorts Shorty (alias Patty Hearst) and Deafy (who evidently acquired his name after years of working with explosives) have a soft-shoe routine they can break into at the slightest provocation. And Jacob Hooper (alias J. Edgar Hoover) likes to finger-dance with his assistant, Babycakes (alias Clyde Tolson), while dandling the younger man on his knee.
Wanted‘s mix of criminality and musicality struck audiences as downright peculiar at its 1972 premiere, which may account for the fact that the current Woolly Mammoth production is only its second professional mounting. Today, with Stephen Sondheim having worked disciplined variations on the theme and audiences having learned about campy pastiche from the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, Wanted hardly seems odd at all in terms of form. If patrons at Assassins can accept John Wilkes Booth offering Lee Harvey Oswald advice on marksmanship, why should anyone be confused when Dillinger and Hearst croon a duet?
In fact, the script itself seems at times almost timid, which makes it fortunate that Jeff Church’s staging isn’t. Not only has he (with some devilishly clever assists from Roberta Gasbarre’s choreography) staged the show to a high-kicking, innuendo-highlighting fare-thee-well, but he’s engaged in some neatly understated nontraditional casting. The chief kick to having an African-American Billy the Kid is that it allows the audience to hear Thorne’s clear, country-flavored tenor. But casting wheelchair-bound Rob McQuay (who was injured several years ago in a freak swimming accident) as Jesse James pays unexpected dividends. Long hair flowing to his shoulders as he bellows James’ furious lyrics about being one of society’s outsiders, McQuay resembles nothing so much as a Vietnam veteran—a reference that nicely reflects the concerns of the period in which the show was written. (McQuay, a fine actor with one of the best baritones in local theater, doesn’t get cast much as a result of his injuries. Perhaps his stint here will change that.)
Twenty-three years ago, in reviewing Wanted‘s off-Broadway premiere, Newsweek declared Carmines “a kind of classic figure of the American countertheater.” As founder and head of the Judson Poets’ Theater, he was indeed pivotal in the Greenwich Village arts scene of the ’60s and ’70s. Author of a dozen musicals, only a few of which received commercial runs outside the Judson Church (of which he is pastor), his composing range is prodigious—blues to country to opera-inflected songspiel—and his lyrical talent only slightly less so. When I first encountered his work in the ’60s, I remember thinking it was an acquired taste. At Woolly Mammoth, played and music-directed by Susan Kingwill (who also played the original off-Broadway run two decades ago) it seems bouncy and thoroughly mainstream. Musical tastes have changed.
It would be pointless (and next to impossible) to synopsize the plot, so let’s settle for mentioning a few other high points. Among the sweetly insane visions you may not have known you wanted until Wanted: Gristled, hairnetted Ma Barker (a brilliantly weird Sarah Marshall) curling her mustachioed lip around a pouty jailhouse blues lyric; John Dillinger (rubber-limbed Fred Schiffman) kicking up his heels and tapping out a machine-gun tattoo to a ditty called “Guns Are Fun”; Jacob Hooper (Tony-winning Broadway belter and character actor Lyle Kanouse) stripping down to his red-ribboned garters and stockings to croon that he’s looking for his “Parasol Lady”; Hooper’s assistant (lanky David Hilder) reacting very slowly to an unexpected pat on the posterior from his boss. The clowns who make up the remainder of the cast are no less effective, and everyone’s in terrific voice (even Marshall, who demonstrates a heretofore unrevealed talent for the blues).
There are low points too, mostly having to do with the script’s machinations, which are often more sophomoric than humorous. But then, so were the ’70s.
Its name notwithstanding, Woolly Mammoth doesn’t generally go in for theatrical archaeology. Over its 15 years of existence, I can think of only one time when it delved deeply into the past (an unexpectedly rich Harvey). More often, the plays that inhabit what passes these days for the cutting edge have been its area of expertise. Still, it’s easy to see why the company was attracted to the anarchy of this ’70s artifact—among other things, both the show and the Woollies started out in church basements—and nice to be able to report that they’re as adept at peering into the past as into the future.
The latest scribblings of popular Woolly playwright, Nicky Silver, are sketches rather than scenes, which makes them a good fit for the Improv Comedy Club, a nightspot that’s not usually on the theater beat. No one’s going to confuse Shrinks—which chronicles the misadventures of a 30-year-old virgin named Ned (Jason Kravits) as he leaps from Freudian pan to Jungian fire—for a dramatic work of substance. It’s simply a joke-fest about psychoanalysis, peppered with songs “donated by the director’s friends” and staged as the sort of revue that once catered to after-theater crowds in the nightclubs around Times Square.
The cast hails mostly from area stages, with the ever-frazzled Kravits appealingly game as a somewhat overworked headliner hopping from shrink to shrink in search of psychiatric salvation. He’s been scoring yuks with remarkable regularity lately in stints at the Shakespeare Theater, Woolly Mammoth, and the Round House, and he seems equally at home on the Improv’s postage-stamp-size stage. Confused, conflicted, and ever-ready to terminate treatment, his Ned manages the difficult trick of being at once the sanest and the funniest person on stage.
In David Warren’s lickety-split staging, Kravitz is bouncing off five singer-comedians of somewhat less-stellar wattage. Each has moments—especially when singing the offbeat songs contributed by theater composers like Michael John (First Lady Suite) LaChiusa, and William (March of the Falsettos) Finn—but only Holly Rudkin, looking and sounding a bit like Murphy Brown‘s Corky Sherwood Forest, consistently gets mileage from addled bits of business. Jim Kronzer’s oddly angled setting is a neater, brighter version of the weirdness he cooked up for The Pitchfork Disney a few months ago. And having George Fulginiti-Shakar at the piano is also a plus.
Audiences looking for the dark currents that usually course through Silver’s comedies won’t find much to sustain them in Shrinks, but the crowd that’s out for laughs will chortle along happily.