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A CurtainUp Review
Improbable Frequency

Some of us were born to be spies/Some of us have whatever it takes/To go in there undaunted by the stakes.—Tristram
Improbable Frequency
Peter Hanly and Darragh Kelly
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Improbable Frequency, Rough Magic Theatre Company's fiendish musical that made such an impression at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and is now making its U.S. premiere at 59E59 Theaters. It's based on a number of fiendish improbabilities.

During World War II the Austrian physicist, Erwin Schrodinger (the Nobel Prize winner who pointed out the improbability of a cat remaining alive and dead at the same time) was invited to Dublin by Irish Prime Minister DeValera. The goal was to establish the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, with separate schools for physics and Gaelic (an improbable combination, for sure). At about the same time, English poet, broadcaster and journalist John Betjeman, was sent to Dublin as the Press Officer to the British Representative. The IRA thought he might be a British spy and considered assassinating him, but after reading his poetry decided this was. . .well. . .improbable. Dublin, during this hellish war, somehow managed to maintain a fragile neutrality while the Irish Free State tried to play both ends against the middle — resulting in a free-for-all bohemian atmosphere ripe for political and cultural cultivation.

Arthur Riordan (book and lyrics) and Bell Helicopter (aka musicians Conor Kelly and Sam Park) have joyfully jumped into these exuberant times with a musical filled with cerebral humor and visceral gags. Lynn Parker, co-founder and artistic director of Rough Magic, directs an energetic and talented cast that sings and swaggers through two hours of zealous mayhem. And they do this in Alan Farquhar's single unit set consisting most appropriately of a multi-functional curved wooden bar.

Peter Hanly plays Tristram Faraday, an English crossword puzzle aficionado who is sent to Dublin to crack the Nazi code and figure out who may be leaking information to the enemy. There he meets Betjeman (Louis Lovett), who is troubled by a certain radio DJ who seems to be playing songs that can miraculously (and improbably) predict the weather. He also meets a former girlfriend (Cathy White) who is now a secret agent for one side or the other, and the attractive Philomena O'Shea (Sarah-Jane Drummey), who may or may not be a spy but certainly captures Faraday's heart. And finally, he encounters the demonic Schrodinger (Marty Rea), in whose lair the mystery unravels.

Throughout his adventures, Faraday maintains an admirable sang-froid. Even his romantic tryst ("The Bedtime Jig") is remarkably and hilariously non-sexual. He is the perfect retiring Englishman, perpetually amazed by the remarkable goings-on around him.

Although all of the actors save Hanly wear the whiteface and red paint of clowns and are outlandish caricatures of a stereotype (the sexy chanteuse/spy, the humble, well-intentioned Englishman, the debonair spy), Rea's character is the one that's most over-the-top. He's the quintessential mad scientist ("An Ingenious Device") with a crazy white wig to prove it. This gives the show its climactic moment but turns the show's scalpel-like efficiency into the over-kill of a sledgehammer.

Improbable Frequency will not appeal to all theatergoers, despite its catchy tunes (derived from English music halls and American vaudeville) and witty lyrics. Overly circuitous plotting, endless puns and double entendres have a tendency to become tiresome, even with the most inspired acting and direction. And the rhymed dialogue that sometimes pays more attention to style than content can become quite an effort to follow.

Nevertheless, Improbable Frequency is never boring. And for those who are willing to make a concentrated effort and stretch their imagination, it will most probably be quite rewarding.

Improbable Frequency
Book 7 Lyrics by Arthur Riordan
Music by Bell Helicopter
Directed by Lynn Parker
Cast: Sarah-Jane Drummey (Philomena O'Shea), Peter Hanly (Tristram Faraday), Darragh Kelly (Myles na gCopaleen)/Muldoon), Louis Lovett (John Betjeman/O'Dromedary), Marty Rea (Erwin Schrodinger/The Colonel), Cathy White (Agent Green)
Set Design: Alan Farquharson
Lighting Design: Sinead McKenna
Costume Design: Kathy Strachan
Running Time: Two hours, 15 minutes, with one intermission
Theater A 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison. (212) 279-4200
From 11/28/08; opening 12/04/08; closing 1/04/09
Tuesday at 7 PM; Wednesday at 2 PM and 8 PM; Thursday and Friday at 8 PM; Saturday at 2 PM and 8 PM; and Sunday at 3 PM.
Single tickets are $60 ($42 for 59E59 Members)
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Dec. 10, 2008
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