Anthony J. Piccione
Anyone who’s ever been in show business before knows that there’s nothing quite as demoralizing as receiving a negative review from the press. As someone who has been on both sides of the artist/critic dynamic, I know all too well the wide-ranging impact that a review can have – for better or for worse – on one’s career and self-esteem. In Jeff Swearingen’s new play Stiff – currently being produced by Fun House Theatre and Film – a bad review is exactly what a new theatrical production in 1950s NYC is about to be in store for. However, after the shocking and untimely death of the critic attending the theater, the trio in charge – consisting of the writer, director and producer – seek to do everything they can to cover up the fact that he’d be preparing to write a negative review, while simultaneously taking advantage of the situation and forging a positive one.
The result is a hysterical situation, full of plenty of slapstick and dark comedy that is bound to keep audiences laughing. Personally, I’m a sucker for dark humor, such as the kind that this play is rooted in, and could not stop laughing at various points in the play. While I won’t give away too much, as I’d hate to spoil anything, there’s no shortage of moments involving the lifeless critic, his widowed wife, chaotic changes and rewrites to the show within a show, hilarious dancing, and janitors turned actors.
Ironically, while this play is all about a production that goes and feels completely wrong, it feels as if many of the production aspects here are about as close to Broadway quality as you might find, in a relatively small venue such as the Barrow Group Theatre. Directed by Andy Baldwin and choreographed by Brandon Mason, the show is very well staged, especially considering how much room there is on stage for a very movement heavy show. I also enjoyed both the set design (including the chairs for the audience of the show within a show) and lighting effects of Aaron Porter, who played double duty as both set designer and lighting designer.
In terms of the acting, the lead trio – Mitch Lerner as writer Robert Grey, Joshua Morgan as director Stanley Miller, and Nicolas Greco as producer Saul Solomon – carries this production with their high energy levels and great comedic timing. Throughout their shenanigans, the flexible Robert Tunstall also does a fine job at being, erm…dead, in the role of critic Mickey Blake. Meanwhile, Lori Funk is lively in the role of Blake’s drunken wife Hilary Doyle-Blake, while Clifton Samuels does a fine job in the role of Blake’s friend Walter Goldstein. Rounding out this talented cast are the actors who bring to life the show within a show: Amandina Altomare as the narcissistic actress Vanessa Verkamp, Jennifer Robbins as the enthusiastic understudy Maggie Simons, Mr. Swearingen who steps into his own play in the role of struggling actor Guy Van, and Becky Barta as the janitor turned actress Margret Pilsner.
As someone who had previously been unfamiliar with the work of Mr. Swearingen, as well as the work of Fun House Theatre and Film, I was highly impressed with this hilarious show, and I do hope this isn’t the last time I get the chance to review either Swearingen’s plays or Fun House’s productions. Furthermore, I sincerely hope that this brilliant dark comedy is successful in finding a long-term home, once its current engagement ends. For now, however, go see this show now at the BGT, while you can! In a time when the world feels very dark but not so funny, we could all use a good laugh, and this play has no shortage of them.
“Stiff” – presented by Fun House Theatre and Film – runs at the Barrow Group Theatre from February 23rd to March 3rd. For more information, please visit www.funhousetheatreandfilm.com.