Easy street

When the curtain first lifted on the antimusical Avenue X, my first thought was, this is just another musical. That's not a bad thing normally, but I expected a different, scrappy kind of beginning rather than the entire ensemble gently singing a lovely opening number amidst a muted set.

The song, "Where is Love," is also the final song of the evening. It seems like milquetoast as an opener--yet the same piece reverberates with great force as the finale. Like so much music, "Where is Love" moves the audience once they make powerful, inextricable associations with the song's lyrics and melody.

As the actors warmed up on opening night, the audience also warmed to the intimate feel of eight actors singing without any instruments other than their voices.

Without warning, Avenue X began to rip.
For those who don't know Brooklyn (despite conventional wisdom, you are missing something), Avenue X is a strip divided, a world of blacks and Italians in a tense standoff--much like the blacks and Hasidic Jews of another famous Brooklyn neighborhood, Crown Heights.

The problems of interaction are nicely portrayed in an early scene when Milton (Jerry Dixon), who is black, bumps into Pasquale (Louis Giovannetti), an Italian. Both are singing in the sewer because of its great underground acoustics. First, they hear each other, and begin an impromptu harmony. Their spontaneous music is interrupted when they see each other's faces and balk. This is a great scene evoking discomfort many know all too well.

The darkness, depression, and diffuse rage of the people who live in this neighborhood boil up to the surface as the play progresses. Pasquale's sister Barbara is a brooding figure addicted to cough syrup who reminds me of Geena Davis in the film Angie. Like Angie, she'd be the first to get out of the neighborhood if she didn't have so many internal obstacles. But Barbara is lost in her black-hole depression, a coffin she embraces to stave off new life. Colette Hawley is sometimes quite moving as Barbara, but she too often veers from natural to stagey, a problem that is somewhat endemic to her role.

Other characters are stripped down to their dysfunctions in classic contemporary style. Rudy Roberson (brilliant as Roscoe) is an abusive, alcoholic husband; Dallas actor Liz Mikel is offered a limiting role as his enabling wife and the helpless, hapless mother of Milton.

Because this is musical theater, these characters do suffer some stereotyping. There isn't time to get deep into any one individual because it's time for another song. But Avenue X isn't about individuals: it's about race, territory, entrapment, and the liberation of music. It also explores what happens when music fails. Like all art, it is bonding and cathartic to a point--until life intervenes.

I just missed doo-wop as a musical phenomenon--the work doesn't beam me back to my youth or throw me into a Proustian reverie. (Only Neil Young and Steppenwolf bring me back to the throes of junior high.) Yet I could not sit in the audience detached as the a cappella singing grew richer and richer.

Even as it explores the darkness of racism, Avenue X makes surprisingly vivid associations among doo-wop, gospel, R&B, and even Italian folk traditions. The associations are surprising because they are hard to make without coming across like a PBS documentary. Occasionally, Avenue X strays into art as instructional material, but it's hard to fault lyricist John Jiler and composer Ray Leslee too much for that.

The author and composer reworked Avenue X considerably for this venue, and it shows through its crisp, unpreachy, unsentimental tone. Yes, it's evenhanded (both blacks and whites have problems and do bad things). But what's wrong with that? It has no political agenda except to say, 'See how the music brings us together,' and 'Why can't we all just get along?' The truths are as simple as they are impossible; it's how the questions unfold that matters here.

I won't give away the ending of Avenue X, but I had some trouble with it. Things suddenly move too fast for me; it has that something-dramatic-must-happen-now feeling, as if the authors are thinking this work has got to wrap up pronto--with the essential bang. (It was as if I was reading a story in the New York Daily News; the last scene has the only hint of sensationalism in the piece.) An ambiguous ending might be more appropriate.

There is an inverse relationship between the form and content of Kurt Kleinmann's murder mystery spoofs: as the sets and production values of Pegasus Theatre's popular black-and-white noir comedies get more sophisticated over time, the Clue game formula gets more and more tiresome. The bad-on-purpose lines mimicking old movies ("out of the frying pan and into a murder case") fall flat--it's funnier to just watch an old movie from the '30s.

Cultural critic Susan Sontag argues that form and content are one, and can't be separated in criticism. But in this case I hate to throw it all into one pot and just say the current production, Death: Take I, is bad.

Bruce Coleman is a terrifically talented set designer who has perfected the art of black-and-white, art deco-influenced sets. In Death/Take I!, the interior of an Egyptian tomb is vividly recreated as it might have been for a 1930s film. I said it last year, and I'll say it again: if you haven't been to one of Kleinmann's whodunnit adventures, it's worth going for the set, music, and production alone. Kleinmann, Coleman, lighting designer Sam Nance, costume designer Judy Marcus, properties designer Steve Brannan, and even wig designer Arianna Movassagh have obviously worked obsessively to make the piece a visual delight.

Now if only it were funny. Last year's Deadline had some very funny moments. If you belong to the local Pegasus cult following, Kleinmann as would-be actor-detective Harry Hunsacker is always funny. But most of the lines fail for a more discerning audience, and that's too bad, because Kleinmann is one of the most endearing comic actors around, and he can deliver humor if he can write it.

Similarly, his sidekick Nigel Grouse is a wonderful actor waiting for some dialogue that will reveal his comic powers. But his wait is futile, and he's squandered in Death/Take I!.

Of course the play is as well-written as any episode of television's Murder, She Wrote. I can never tell if that series is meant to be so bad it's good; I'm afraid it's written in earnest. Kleinmann's writing is more self-aware than that, but I hold him to higher standards than I do the tube.


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