The Hollywood Fringe Festival is unlike a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get.
That Forrest Gump metaphor never worked for me. A box of chocolates usually comes with a guide that makes it easy to identify the nuts and caramels so you always know what you’re going to get. The Fringe Festival’s guide is hazier. Shows can look like one thing and be another. Some look a little awkward but turn out to be delicious. And of course some look nutty and actually are nutty.
I live for the Fringe surprises, shows that shake up my preconceived notions and blow my mind. They happen rarely, but are always welcome. One happened just a couple of nights ago.
That night I saw three shows, all featuring curmudgeonly characters and all at the Broadwater Black Box: Bingo!, The Portable Dorothy Parker and Things to Avoid in a Eulogy. All three also had shockingly thoughtful and robust sets with actual furniture and rugs. Given each show’s 15-minute set-up and break-down times, the dedication and hard work deserves kudos.
In this interactive dark comedy, written and directed by Adam Scott Mazer, the audience is deemed to be residents of a care facility gathering in a rec room for a game of bingo. We enter with bingo cards and stampers, ready for a game. The bingo caller, played by Newman Wolf, brings in the cage, balls and rack.
The caller is agitated, bordering on morose. He’s easily distracted, interrupting the game to tell stories about what’s going wrong in his life. (It’s a lot.) Much of his commentary is more dark than comedy, increasingly edgy and uncomfortable. He insults the old people in his care while in his downward spiral.
Yet we root for him. Maybe it’s the clever play on the bingo numbers he’s calling, like I-18. Maybe it’s his potential for redemption. Or maybe it’s just because we want to win the game.
The Portable Dorothy Parker
Sadly best-known for her tart one-liners like “Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker” and “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses,” Dorothy Parker in fact had a prodigious output of screenplays, short stories, reviews, poetry and social satire. The Portable Dorothy Parker, written with love by Annie Lux and performed with Scotch-drinking zest and great physical presence by Margot Avery, aims to set the record straight.
The Portable Dorothy Parker is also an anthology, in print continuously since 1944, and the play’s conceit is that Parker is meeting in 1943 with a representative from her publisher to select what should be included in the book. She bemoans her identification solely as a purveyor of witticisms, then drops what feels like dozens of them. She name drops (Benchley, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, New Yorker editor Harold Ross…). She shares details about her husband (“Scratch an actor, you’ll find an actress”) and the Algonquin Round Table (she wasn’t impressed).
A woman in an early 20th-century man’s world, Parker had a lot to resent and a lot to brag about. It’s a pleasure to watch Avery inhabit her and do both.
Things to Avoid in a Eulogy
Things to Avoid in a Eulogy blew my mind. Its writing, by Donnie Jarman, combines depth, wit and a strong arc. Its acting, by Jennifer Ashe (Sandra) and Lindsay Seim (Jill), is heart-wrenching. Direction, by Thomas Bigley, is compelling and sensitive. Then there’s the aforementioned perfect set, as well as pitch-perfect props and sound design.
While many Fringe shows feel like they’re being workshopped, Things to Avoid in a Eulogy arrives fully formed. Its subject matter—a cantankerous older woman, Sandra, riddled with cancer and ready to die, hires an upbeat younger woman, Jill, to see her out—would be relevant to any audience, anywhere.
Despite the feeling of impending death, the play employs humor intelligently and consistently. We care about these characters, especially Sandra, on a deep level, in part because they can laugh at themselves. They wrestle with the big stuff and find their way, separately and together. Stellar.