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A CurtainUp Review

The small theater company launched by a group of enterprising actors, directors and writers are the theatrical equivalent of the small press movment that dates back to Thomas Paine's self-published and distributed "Common Sense." As a number of small presses have published surprise best sellers and moved under the umbrella of large publishing houses, so a number of spirited theatrical entrepreneurs have scored comparable successes. Each of these companies tends to follow a similar organizational pattern, yet each has managed to establish a distinct personality.

Like one of the oldest of these downtown companies, the Ridiculous Theater, the eight-year-old Adobe Theater Company's off-beat and zany sense of humor has won it a following of that much sought after young audience said to have deserted the theater. As the Ridiculous became known as "the scourge of human folly", so Adobe's shows have been tagged as "welcome acts of subversion."

Now both the Adobe and the Ridiculous have attracted producers with deep enough pockets to give them a chance to win new fans with Off-Broadway open run productions. The Mystery of Irma Vep, (see link) which has become the Ridiculous Theater's biggest touring show hit has already proved its producers' faith with its highly polished and unanimously praised revival at the West Side Theater. Duet! A Romantic Fable has only had one brief run at the Ohio Theater in SoHo but that brought a bouquet of critical raves including a particularly ecstatic review from no less than the second in command of The New York Times theater desk. Bolstered by these accolades, the show has now made another landing at the Actors' Theater.

Gregory Jackson and Erin Quinn Purcell (writers-directors-actors) and Jeremy Dobrish (co-director) are as multifaceted as the Ridiculous team of Charles Ludlum the playwright-director-actor and Everett Quinton (who stars in and directs the Irma Vep revival). Like Ludlum, they are cultural burglars. The Duet team loots a fairy tale, kitschy comedy club acts, hokey show tunes and goofy 1950s date movies for its spoof on the mating game.

The show has enough going for it in terms of appealing to the Adobe target audience of theater neophytes, but it is not as likely to cross the age-and-taste barrier as Irma or any of Ludlam's other inspired and language rich farces. I'd recommend Irma to enthusiasts of campy, avante garde theater, regardless of age and whether they go to the theater regularly, occasionally or hardly ever. On the other hand, Duet, for all its smart take on pop entertainment, has a decidedly more limited appeal. Its humor is as likely to miss as to hit home with really diverse audiences.

The versatile Jackson and Purcell, are very good indeed as stars of Duet's central and longest sketch ( the romantic fable) -- Jackson as a sappy would-be Tony Bennett named Mike, a.k.a. Mikey Macaroni and Purcell as Marcia an equally sappy platinum blonde secretary, an ersatz Marilyn Monroe. They meet at Noam Pearlstein's (Henry Caplan) Pearl Onion, a dive where Mike has been hired to do a crooning gig. Their eyes lock and hold across the not-so-crowded room and an absurdist romance gets off on its roller coaster ride. (A roller coaster ride simulated from a simple prop is in fact one of the funnier moment's of their first date). True to Mike's "My echo, my shadow and me" ballad, the young lovers' apple pie ordinariness is overcast with some dark shadows lurking in the background: Hers is a catatonic, grossly obese and television addicted dad (Frank Ensenberger, who fills in as several other character) and an over-the-top mom (played in drag by Derin Basden, who also plays mutiple roles). His is an eating disorder that involves a craving for devouring frogs (well, how else would you get to a conclusion in which a talking frog demands to be kissed by the secretary-princess?).

Obviously, this main story line is not something that lends itself to a really complete or completely sensible summary. Suffice it to say that the troupe supporting the main players is deliberately and boldly awful enough, (at least I think it was deliberate), to catch the high waves of this low comedy spoof.

While the Adobe move from the Ohio Theater to the Actors' Playhouse marks a step up the theatrical ladder, their new home is still small enough for the interactive atmosphere that's part of their stated mission. That includes getting the audience into the mood with a glittery cigarette girl and friendly ushers welcoming everyone, an exotic dancer promising more fun and games to come, the actors moving up and down the aisles throughout the show and an invitation to "hang out" when it's over.

The biggest change at the new Adobe situation is the price of tickets. Like the frog in the fable, they've leapfrogged from $10 to a princely $35. Curious to check out what all the fuss over the Adobe is about but uncertain whether Duet is your cup of comedic broth? See it on a Tuesday when homage to the Adobe's dedication to affordable as well as accessible theater is paid with $19.95 tickets.

They Mystery of Irma Vep

DUET! A Romantic Fable
Book and direction by Gregory Jackson and Erin Quinn Purcell
Co-Directed by Jeremy Dobrish
. Music and lyrics by Michael Garin
Starring Quinn Purcell and Gregory Jackson; with Frank Ensengberger, Derin Basden, Chris Klimkoski, Henry Caplan, Kathryn Langwell and Beau Ruland.
Set design: Stephen Capone
Costume design: Daryl Stone
Lighting design: Paul Ziemer
Original songs: Michael Garin
Sound design: Chris Todd
Adobe Theatre Company in association with Doger Endemol Theatrical Productions and Peter Breger
The Actors' Playhouse, 100 Seventh Av. (Below Sheridan Square in the West Village) (212/463-0060) Performances begin: 9/28/98; opening: 10/06/98
Running Time 78 minutes
Reviewed 10/08/98 by Elyse Sommer

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