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Inky by Elyse Sommer

I'm king of the world,
I'm shaking up the world.
You must listen to me.
I'm the prettiest thing that ever lived.
I was born a champ in the crib.
I am the king.
I am the king.
I am the greatest .

--- Inky, channeling Muhammed Ali
 Jessi Campbell &  Marianne Hagan
Jessi Campbell as Inky & Marianne Hagan as Barbara
(Photo: T. Charles Erickson )
When fresh, new playwriting voices are mentioned, especially when the focus is on playwrights seen mostly downtown or Off-Off-Broadway, the name Rinne Groff pops up with some regularity. Groff's two other plays Hysterical Girls Theorem and Jimmy Carter was a Democrat, actually post-dated Inky, which was first produced by Salt Theater Company and Clubbed Thumb. A revised version is now being given a stylish production by Women's Project & Productions (I wish this worthy company would do some revision of its name to something more concise -- perhaps The Women's Project?).

Audiences entering the Julia Miles Theater are given a cute little key chain with a red plastic boxing glove. But Inky isn't another Million Dollar Baby. It’s a domestic drama set in the 1980s, at the end of the Reagan era. The advance press information describes it as a darkly comic story and, while there were some chuckles from the audience when I saw it, Ms. Groff's characters are too unsympathetic and her plot points are too muddled to be either funny or to clearly get across what she's trying to say.

The boxing metaphor which drives her story was inspired by Muhammed Ali, whose enduring fame stems as much from his way with language as his abilities in the ring. The result: a play in 15 scenes -- which is the number of rounds played in championship matches. Some of these rounds are launched with the title character (Jessi Campbell) spotlighted and spouting phrases from the much quoted Ali. Too bad the characters are more chumps for a money-oriented value system than champions, or at least champions in the making.

I suppose you could call Inky the nominal heroine of this story though she's really the catalyst to make Barbara (Marianne Hagan) and Greg (Jason Pugatch), a dysfunctional Manhattan Yuppy couple face up to their sexual, parental and financial inadequacies (another metaphor-- this one for the Reagan era, at the end of which the play is set). Inky (Irinjahtka is quite a mouthful, and so the nickname) becomes part of Barbara and Greg's household as a bargain-priced au pair to take care of their new baby and Barbara's seven-year-old daughter from a previous marriage (Elizabeth Schweitzer). The little girl's mugging by a bunch of young hoodlums and Girl Scout cookie selling activities serve to inroduce much of the off-stage maneuverings that bring about a resolution of sorts. She is conveniently named Allison so that Inky can turn her into a little Ali and give her the sense of self-worth that neither her mother or stepfather have heretofore supplied -- most especially not her mother, who is the non-nurturing product of a non-nurturing mother for whom success is defined by apartments with terraces and summer homes.

The Playbill makes no mention of Barbara and Greg's ages though the script has her in her 40s and him in his 30s. This is just as well since Marianne Hagan and Jason Pugatch look to be about the same age. We do learn that they were colleagues at a vaguely described workplace where she helped him to move up the ladder, but if Groff had an older woman/younger man subtext in mind, it is not developed in any way here. What we do see is that money (her need for the status symbols it can buy) rules this domain. Sex is possible only with a whorish type of dollar-bill foreplay. The pressure to be a financial champ, drives Greg to unsavory practices that could easily land him in jail.

Being part of this household is understandably confusing for Inky who's grown up in quite different circumstances (her fixation on boxing and Ali may have been seeded by possible sexual abuse in her unnamed country). Though she relates better to the baby and older child than the children's mother, she also becomes attached to Barbara and adapts her methods of sexual blackmail to obtain the wherewithal to be the head-of-the-house leader this rudderless domestic ship now lacks.

Loretta Greco has mounted a handsome production but has done little to make it a really fast-paced match. Hagan does her utmost to portray Barbara as a woman who's failed at one marriage and shows every sign of failing in another, just as she's on the verge of failing at motherhood a second time. Jason Pugatch is fine as the husband who wants his baby to be the champ he's not. The real acting honors, however, go to Jessi Campbell, a newcomer to New York who one hopes will find herself in a play that makes its points more convincingly than this one.

Hysterical Girls Theorem
Jimmy Carter was a Democrat

Written by Rinne Groff
Directed by Loretta Greco.
Cast: Jessi Campbell, Marianne Hagan, Jason Pugatch, Elizabeth Schweitzer
Set Design: Robert Brill
Costume Design: Valerie Marcus Ramshur
Lighting Design: Sarah Sidman
Sound Design: Robert Kaplowitz
Running time: 90 minutes without intermission.
Julia Miles Theater (WPP), 424 W. 55th St. (9/10th Aves) 212/239-6200
Wed – Sat at 8pm, Sun at 2pm
Tickets: $47
3/02/05 to 4/03/05; opening 3/13/05
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on performance
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