Thomas Burns Scully
- OnStage New York Critic
I’m going to talk briefly about ASMR. The reason will become clear in a minute. For those unfamiliar, it’s a kind of video that has come to the fore in the YouTube era. As defined on Wikipedia, Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) signifies the subjective experience of 'low-grade euphoria' characterized by 'a combination of positive feelings, relaxation, and a distinct static-like tingling sensation on the skin’. The name generally refers to YouTube videos where people whisper breathily in to a microphone (though the rabbit hole goes much deeper, I am told). The effect is similar to those headache-cure claw things that feel like someone cracking an egg on your head: Mild pleasure and relaxation. It sounds like a sex thing… I can’t say 100% that it’s not, but a lot of people use them as a sleep aid. Why bring this up? I need to give you that context, because the other day I experienced a set of short plays that had the ASMR effect on me. Not by having actors whisper in to a microphone (though there was a little of that), but something about the context, themes and the rhythm of the words, created that mild euphoria and feeling of relaxation. I’ve never had that in a play before. It was also a compelling evening of interesting and thoughtful drama, covering a range of topics edging towards the surreal, and all based around the lose theme of ‘Crush’. But enough about my fetishes, let’s jump right in and talk about F* It Club’s production of ‘Spring Fling: Crush’.
The event was an evening of seven one-acts at the IRT Theatre. ‘Behind the Wall’ by Krista Knight was an analogue of New York intimacy from the perspective of an unexpected friend. ‘He Lights Up My’ by Stephanie Del Rosso, is a story about a woman who falls for a lamp. ‘You Were Crushed’ by Ariel Stess featured a therapy session that started odd and got odder. ‘A Conversation I Never Had’ saw a man and a woman fast-forwarding and rewinding through heartache. ‘Bagel Meets Door’ was an OkCupid date, taking place through a door. ‘The Epic Life of Sam Wheeler’ was about just that, a man, seen both as he was and as a person’s memory, who knew how to live life with gusto. Finally, ‘Crush’ puts the audience as a fly-on-the-wall at a singles’ mixer where people’s flaws are agonizingly and endearingly in the fore. The whole thing felt more like an episode of Monty Python than a one-act festival, and, of course, I mean that as a compliment.
I’ve never been married to the ‘night of one acts’ idea. They often feel either vain or opportunistic, but, more than anything, the jumps in tone and style (and quality) from one piece to the next are disorientating and make for an inconsistent viewing experience. Like watching Michael Jackson’s ‘Moonwalker’. ‘Spring Fling’ does not have this problem. Either by design or serendipity, these pieces all gelled beautifully as a viewing experience. Probably my favorite of them was ‘Crush’, an excellent satire on dating that never fell in to rom-com tropes. Instead it presented terrifyingly fragile people dealing moment-to-moment with threats of expectation and self-disappointment. Jill Frutkin’s performance, in particular, was wonderful. A woman painfully, but realistically awkward, and her chemistry and awkward romance with Ben Beckley was delightful. ‘He Lights Up My’ was a weaker piece of writing, perhaps because it was so conventional in its conceits. When compared to the other pieces it simply felt like it didn’t have as much to say. It relied a little too heavily on its central joke which, while funny, didn’t lend itself well to mileage; and the tone was muddled.
‘A Conversation I Never Had’ and ‘You Were Crushed’ were probably the most impenetrable of the evening. That said, I enjoyed both greatly. Each presented an omni-permeating mood-scape, rather than a story. The meaning of the words being said felt entirely secondary to the way they were being said. Plot in both was on the nebulous side, I’d have trouble recounting any of the story beats to you, but when I think of them now I can remember with clarity the feeling that each created in me. They were the show’s peak ASMR. With one exception: ‘Behind the Wall’. This protracted, multi-act monologue is given no context whatsoever, beyond light costuming, and a few clues in the script. It began the play, and filled the air whilst sets were being changed. At first, you have no idea what is going on. It feels like a beat poem sans jazz backing. The actor, Ben Beckley, says some bizarre things about dancing, soda-streams and household appliances. He keeps talking about a birthday dance he has prepared for someone he loves. Levels of WTF rise beyond all reason. Then gradually you realize who the man before you is, and what he represents. And suddenly his bizarre aggression, and occasional bombasticism make sense, and he becomes beautiful. I won’t spoil the ending, unless you decide to look below*.
‘Bagel Meets Door’ and ‘The Epic Life of Sam Wheeler’ were more grounded, but just as surreal. ‘Bagel’ saw a subway worker encountering a woman with a strange house-binding condition through a door. At first it seems like a surreal joke which the man isn’t quite buying, then gradually the two develop a sweet understanding. Sort of like a dark meet-cute featuring improbable disease. I liked it. The fact that it resolved its initial mystifying strangeness in a grounded, realistic strangeness gave the play a satisfying resolution. The same was true of ‘Epic Life’. The titular Wheeler is a man incapable of living life by halves. His brain chemistry makes it impossible for him to be normal, and he tries to rescue his best friend from shackling blandness. Ugo Chukwu is excellent as the indomitable man himself. His performance is neatly offset by scene-partner Rory Kulz, as well as the parallel scene of the play. This features Mikaela Feely-Lehmann and Nick Lawson, one playing Sam’s wife, and the other playing a potential suitor. They are on a date at a point years later. Lawson comes off as an awkward, Eisenberg-esque nerd-do-well, while Lehmann is the woman who never thought she’d have to love again. Their chemistry is endlessly engaging.
Shows like ‘Spring-Fling’ are rare. Indomitably weird and high-brow, but without being esoteric to the point of pretension. It’s for the introvert stranger in all of us, that part of ourselves that is quietly a freak, and we, and the rest of the world, are able to just about not notice. It massages a part of the brain that is difficult to reach, and for that I admire it greatly. The writing is unique, the direction excellent, and the cast on-point. I highly recommend it if you need to see theatre that is unlike every other show on or off Broadway. It’s what I wish every one-act festival could be. Most of these feature reiterations of conventional theatre on a smaller scale. This was a venue for honest theatrical experimentation, performed by people who unquestionably knew what they were doing. I love that. I recommend checking out F* It Club’s work in future.
‘Spring Fling: Crush’ run as part of IRT Theater's 3B Development Series from April 28-May 8. For more information about F* It Club, follow them on Facebook (facebook.com/EffItClub) and Twitter (@f_itclub)
This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded by TimeOut NY, the New York Times, BAFTA US, the Abbey Theatre Dublin and other smaller organizations too numerous to mention. His writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man.
Follow him on Facebook (as Thomas Burns Scully), and on Twitter (@ThomasDBS)