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A CurtainUp Review
Ashley Montana Goes Ashore In the Caicos. . .Or What Am I Doing Here?

This is a play made up of separate pieces, that taken together, represent an amused and anxious mind --- Roger Rosenblatt's program notes for the very short pieces presented under the umbrella of a very long title.

Bebe Neuwirth & Jeffrey DeMunn
Bebe Neuwirth & Jeffrey DeMunn
(Photo: Dixie Sheridan)
As a Sports Illustrated cover featuring a blonde bathing beauty is projected on a venetian blind backdrop of the Flea's main stage, the mind that Roger Rosenblatt declares to be the sum total of his assorted vignettes springs into its alternately amused and anxious mode. For the quartet of nameless characters for whom the award winning essayist and occasional playwright has created his riff on life's minutiae and major events, the beautiful blonde in a swimsuit prompts the first of several verbal jousts about anxiety. A declaration that "something's wrong." sets off other fragmentary comments that range from noting that "you can feel the squint of anguished curiosity" to suppositions that she might just be having "a bad hair day" or that her boss "could be a crook" or that she's leading a double life. As for Ashley's on-shore destination, nobody seems to have a clue as to what and where in the world the Caicos are.

For those of you not up on your fashion models or fashionable resorts, there really is a model named Ashley Montana, and the Caicos Islands are a popular destination for devotees of romantic beaches and and snorkeling. What's more the Flea cover blowup is of the actual February 1991 issue of Sports Illustrated featuring Walter Iooss, Jr's photo of Ashley and a cover line reading "Ashley Montano goes Ashore in the Caicos." Not that any of this really matters, as this is just the author's way of giving that amused and anxious mind a colorful send-off.

Rosenblatt clearly has a Tom Stoppard-ish love for word play and knows how to let often ridiculous word bombs rub up against one another and ignite more trenchant and powerful ones. As directed by Jim Simpson and with Bebe Neuwirth and Jeffrey DeMunn to play the more mature members of the ensemble, and Jenn Harris and James Waterston as a second man and woman, the loosely connected pieces are presented with stylish good humor and the right mix of disquieting perplexity. Some parts of this theatrical potpourri work better than others so that the sum total pretty much lives up to the drolly honest by-line: "almost a play by Roger Rosenblatt."

Not surprisingly, the humor often veers to the political and when it does it's again not unexpected for the laughs to come at the expense of the Republicans. The political riffs are well done and the sort of stuff Flea regulars tend to eat up. They even include a torchy song from Neuwirth and a jazzy number from Waterston. However, delightful as it is to have Neuwirth singing, and fun as the song "Ashcroft" is, the tune's subject has already spent his ten minutes of cabinet post fame and a less hip audience might already be more vague about Ashcroft than Ashley Montana. But then again, how can you resist a rhyme like "I know that he's the only man for me./I'm nuts for his conservativity./His principles are hogwash./He isn't very smart./But nothing rhymes With Ashcroft but my heart."

Waterston's "Black and Blue," in which he takes on the persona of the recently deposed head of FEMA, Michael D. Brown, has a snappy, last-minute script addition flavor, but this number too would, like any material in a current events related show, need updating in a future life. Still, political humor by an Emmy award winning writer and with a glamorous Broadway star like Neuwirth hopping onto a piano to sing -- all for a $15 ticket! -- is it really necessary to have everything work perfectly?

Speaking of perfect, that adjective applies to all the performances. Neuwirth is a fine comic actress as well as singer. Jeffrey DeMunn is especially good with the more plaintive material; for example, a downsized worker's touching soliloquy. In another more anxiety than laughter provoking solo, Waterston assumes the daunting role of the Grim Reaper explaining himself and at the same time putting some common myths to rest -- including the reaper's grimness ("I am neither grim nor amiable. Sad to report, I don't have much of a personality at all"). As Woman #2, Jenn Harris, who was the best reason to see last season's Modern Orthodox, fully lives up to the comic potential of her show-stopping late arrival in that play. Not to be denied a round of applause is percussionist Christopher Lipton, who at one point comes out from behind that venetian blind screen and interacts with the ensemble.

It is almost inevitable that the jumps from topic to topic and the highly stylized production would make this "almost play" at times feel as overly extended as its title. (Neuwirth's and DeMunn's sketch about a couple who retire to Staten Island goes on way too long). But you won't get a chance to see four terrific actors deliver enough amusing and bemusing dialogue to make Ashley Montana (at least until the end of its as of now limited run) one of New York City's true theater bargains.

By Roger Rosenblatt
Directed by Jim Simpson.
Cast: Bebe Neuwirth (Woman 1), Jenn Harris (Woman 2), Jeffrey DeMunn (Man 1) and James Waterston (Man 2)
Set Design:Kyle Chepulis
Costume Design: Melissa Schlachtmeyer
Lighting Design: Brian Aldous
Musicl Director: Kris Kukul
Percussionist: Christopher Lipton
Choreographer: Mimi Qullin
Music for "Ashcroft" by Peter Weissman, lyrics by Roger Rosenblatt
Running time: 80 minutes without an intermission
The Flea, 41 White Street (between Broadway & Church Streets -- accessible from the A,C,E,N,R,Q,W,6,J,M,Z to Canal or 1,9 to Franklin Street). 212-352-3101
From 10/06/05 to 11/19/05; opening 10/20/05
Wednesday - Saturday at 7pm with 3pm matinees on Saturday
Tickets: $15
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on October 15th press performance
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