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A CurtainUp Review

The Flid Show

The Flid Show -- Redux
*Mat Fraser (Duncan Mowbray)
Mat Fraser as Duncan Mowbray
In case you missed it in its earlier permutation (see Jenny Sandman's review below), The Flid Show is back for another run further uptown. The asterisk * in front of the names of the actors indicate that they are reprising the roles they created. In addition to the new cast members, this production also has a different design team.

Mat Fraser is a rugged, good-looking, lanky guy -- who happens to have no forearms and stunted hands. Fraser, like the character Duncan Mowbray whom he portrays, was deformed before birth by the infamous "miracle drug" Thalidomide. Fraser may not rival the voice we are led to believe that cabaret singer Duncan has, but his ability to give the audience a window into the struggle that afflicts both his and his character's life is complex, and pure.

Writer Richard Willet has struck a universal sensitivity with this story (we all have to face our own demons; internal, external, or both), and coupled it with vital medical history that should not be forgotten especially in the light of another "miracle drug," Vioxx, that was recently taken off the market. Willet does tend to take the interweaving of Duncan's past, present, plus the Thalidomide story to the point that it seems to move forward at a dizzying speed, making for awkward scene interruptions. Nonetheless, this is emotionally strong, fiction forged from fact. -- Re-reviewed by Amanda Cooper.

Current Production Notes: THE FLID SHOW
Written by Richard Willett
Directed by Eliza Beckwith
Cast: *Mat Fraser (Duncan Mowbray), Karen Walsh (Brenda Mowbray), *Debbie Lee Jones (Frances Kelsey), Kim Donovan (Rachel Stohl), *Amy Staats (Suzanne Van de Put/Sherri Finkbine), Christa Scott-Reid (Michele Mowbray), Michael Anderson (Gordon Mowbray), James Thomas (William McBride), Harley Adams (Teenage Duncan), and Alison Adams (Young Brenda).
Lighting Design by Aaron Mooney
Costume Design by Kim B. Walker
Accompanist: Louis Tucci.
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission
Medicine Show Theater, 549 West 52nd Street, third floor, 212-352-3101
1/31/05 to 2/26/05 Mon, Fri - Sat at 8pm -- $15

-- original review By Jenny Sandman
It sounds like a thoroughly suspicious idea for a play: a lounge singer, born without arms because of thalidomide, is visited by three spirits à la A Christmas Carol who attempt to help him on his quest for self-acceptance. But somehow, playwright Richard Willett has made this unique story work without the play becoming either tacky or maudlin. In fact, it's quite touching, and very funny in places.

Thalidomide is the infamous sleeping pill marketed heavily in the late fifties and early sixties to pregnant women as a morning sickness cure. Those unfortunate mothers who took the drug gave birth to babies with severe birth defects, most missing arms or legs (or both). An estimated 10,000 babies were born with these defects before the drug was finally pulled off the market. Now, of course, even a simple bottle of aspirin has a warning label advising pregnant women to consult their doctors before taking any drug; and it is largely because of thalidomide that these warnings exist. Interestingly, there is also renewed interest in bringing thalidomide back since new research has shown it's effective in treating symptoms of cancer, leprosy, and possibly even AIDS.

In The Flid Show ("flid" being a nickname for those thalidomide-affected babies, who couldn't pronounce the word "thalidomide" and instead shortened it to "flid"), Duncan Mowbray is a 40-year-old lounge singer born without arms. Thanks to the help of his sister Brenda, who has been his caretaker for all of his adult life, Duncan is able to lead a normal existence. He languishes in a back-alley dive, fearing that publicity will bring the wrong sort of audience--that he will become famous for being a freak, not for being a good performer. When he begins to fall for a pretty (if clumsy) American doctor, he is visited by three "spirits," incarnations of other people whose lives were affected by thalidomide--most notably a former F.D.A. worker. They take Duncan through the story of his mother's pregnancy, her ongoing anguish and guilt during his childhood, and the stories of all those other people, mothers and babies. Ultimately, he's able to conquer some of his fear and self-doubt.

The stories that the spirits tell Duncan are wrenching --mothers who killed their babies rather than raise "monsters," women who requested but were denied abortions, women who were blamed by doctors and friends and neighbors for their abnormal children. And, of course, the children themselves.

We hear both sides of the story. That includes the scientists and doctors employed by the drug company who fought to keep thalidomide on the market even after the reports of birth defects.

If Willett dwelled on the sad stories, his play would swiftly have become mired in sentimentality. Instead, the stores are offered as counterpoint to Duncan's own story. There's also some welcome comic relief from the brash Canadian F.D.A. worker (the first spirit).

The production itself is lovely, with beautiful lighting and scrim work. Director Eliza Beckwith is an old pro at collaborating with Willett, having directed his previous shows Hot Air, Triptych and Random Harvest. Her direction is simple and elegant, letting the story speak for itself.

The ensemble of actors is very strong, especially Lawrence Lau as Duncan, Suzanna Hay as the Canadian Frances Kelsey, Kim Donovan as Rachel Stohl, the American doctor, and Katherine Heasley Clarvoe as Brenda, Duncan's long-suffering sister. Lau is not the world's greatest singer, but he's a fine actor nonetheless. He and Donovan have great chemistry together, and his performance is graceful and powerful. Clarvoe creates a most personable sister, and Hay is often hysterical as the blunt Canadian F.D.A. worker.

Despite this background , The Flid Show is enjoyable. Certainly, it's a unique story, well-performed and well-told.

Written by Richard Willett
Directed by Eliza Beckwith
With Alison Adams, Harley Adams, Katherine Heasley Clarvoe, Kim Donovan, Kate Downing, Suzanna Hay, Laurence Lau, Amy Staats, James Thomas and Chris Wight
Set Design by David Paul Stock
Lighting Design by Scott Ashley
Costume Design by Kimberley E. Cruce
Running time: 2 hours and thirty minutes with one intermission
New Directions Theatre at Walkerspace, 46 Walker Street; 212-229-7500
10/30/03 to 11/22/03; opening 11/02/03
Reviewed by Jenny Sandman based on November 1st performance

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