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A CurtainUp Review

I'm thinking about becoming a vegetarian. It's supposed to be good for your insides. You're like organs or whatever.&mash; Dantly in Adam Rapp's Animals and Plants
: Sarah Lemp as Dr. Sarah Bauer in Pink Knees on Pale Skin.
Playwrights Derek Ahonen and Adam Rapp ask us to do something almost herculean in their double-feature extravaganza, HotelMotel. They ask us to indulge them for nearly four hours while they flail with the implausible meanings of their plays, tossing us red herrings and hoping we'll take the bait. As they do, they also remind us just how hard it is to write wholly effective plays.

We feel for them, because they certainly do try. Yet, while each play has its moments, I think we're really meant to sit back and just go "Wow!" Wow from the sex, or from the sex talk. Wow from the verbal and physical violence. Wow from the fact that the male characters love to take off their pants and get nude without any seeming provocation. When we're through saying"wow," we're not left with a whole lot from either playwright.

If this weres a concert, I suppose Ahonen's play would be the opening act. In Pink Knees on Pale Skin a fraudulent, self-loathing and arguably evil sex counselor, Dr. Sarah Bauer (the deliciously icy cold Sarah Lemp),"saves" couples' marriages by making them have sex with each other, or with her own husband, Leroy (Jordan Tisdale), who hides under the bed for most of the play. Like Leroy, the play never really gets too far. Ahonen introduces characters and plots as frantic filler, perhaps sensing that his conceit is running out of gas. While he writes in the program that he "really cares] about these characters," and that he hopes "you really care about them too," you won't. That's because, with the exception of one, introduced solely to pull heartstrings and beef up what is essentially a serious farce, they're mostly puddle deep. Yet, there is one performer who almost makes us believe the ridiculous story, and that's the highly strung and emotional Vanessa Vache as Caroline Wyatt, a lawyer trying to save her marriage to her cheating cardiac surgeon husband, Robert (James Kautz).

The productions' gimmickry is all a bit precious, yet still clever. The plays are held in a very large suite with huge ceilings — did giant people once live here? — dilapidated by time, and only twenty people are permitted into each performance. Each "guest" is given a hotel key card and then summoned, by name and ushered one by one to the suite by a hot looking actor who thanks the guests for choosing the Gershwin (for some reason he also ends up half nude). A pianist dressed like a character in a western plays a mournful tune and the room feels somewhat grimy.

As luck would have it, I was seated first. this gave me the chance to watch the uneasiness of my evening's compatriots, many of whom were also critics, as they were seated around the large bed in the room. This was obviously by brilliant design of Ahonen and Rapp, both of whom direct their respective pieces.

The New York premiere of Rapp's Animals and Plants is the more ambitious of the two plays, and proves to be the more spectacular failure. Dantly (William Apps) and Burris (Matthew Pilieci) are two dopey low-level drug couriers stuck in a messy and claustrophobic motel room in Boone, North Carolina during a vicious snowstorm. The lethargic Dantly wears some sort of clown wig and occasionally utters profundities which, after many torturous diversions, turn out to be the meat of the play. But, the pair's interminable Beavis and Butthead shtick, though sometimes entertaining, soon wears thin.

With occasional laughs, Animals and Plants, essentially a ghost story, remains an aimless searching for its meaning, weighed down by its own layers of metaphor.

Rapp's play, which according to his program notes was written when he was thirty, often feels like juvenilia. He tosses in some sick violence and all sorts of magical realism, including a mountain man in a bear skin who hovers around the action with a machete and sometimes yodels (Is he a bear? Is he a man? A bear man?). In the end, it's all as weightless as the snow that special effects designer Jeremy Chernick so beautifully drops on the audience as we leave the play.

For more about what to expect check out this YouTube trailer.

Pink Knees on Pale Skin by Derek Ahonen; Animals and Plants by Adam Rapp
Directed by Derek Ahonen and Adam Rapp
Cast: Pink Knees on Pale Skin: Sarah Lemp (Dr. Sarah Bauer), Jordan Tisdale (Leroy), James Kautz (Robert Wyatt), Vanessa Vache (Caroline Wyatt), Byron Anthony (Theodore Williams), Anna Stromberg (Allison Williams), Nick Lawson (Norman); Animals and Plants: William Apps (Dantly), Matthew Pilieci (Burris), Katie Broad (Cassandra), Brian Mendes (Buck)
Set Design: Alfred Schatz
Costume Design: Jessica Pabst
Lighting Design: Keith Parham
Sound Design, Composer, Pianist: Phil Carluzzo
Associate Sound Design: Eric Shimelonis
Prop Master: Judy Merrick
Running Time: Three and a quarter hours with one twenty minute intermission
The Gershwin Hotel, 7 E. 27th Street;
From 8/04/11; opening 8/10/11; closing 8/29/11
Mon., Wed., Thurs., Fri. & Sat. @ 7pm, Sat & Sun. @ 2pm
Reviewed by William Coyle, based on August 6 performance
Extended to 9/19-- and then to 10/10/11-- with ticket prices during final 3 weeks only $18.

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