A motel door opening briefly revealing a man in a chicken costume is one of numerous over- the-top elements in the energetic performance art theater piece, The Essential Straight & Narrow. Others include strobe lights, loud music, a television in the background playing The Wolfman with Lon Chaney Jr., a frantic Halloween party, and a man playing a woman.
Created collaboratively among members of the theater company The Mad Ones over the course of two years, this lively work features an engaging troupe of performers in a brisk non-linear oddball concoction typical of this genre where everything is open to interpretation and not much is easily discerned.
Shifting abruptly from flashbacks to a form of the present, we follow Jo, a young woman formerly a folk/country musician and now an actor. Periodically she is shown reading from and trying to memorize a script indicating that she’s preparing for a role, seemingly in a television police drama.
Much of the action takes place in 1974 in a rundown New Mexico wood-paneled motel room where an estranged trio of country western performers has gathered to launch a reunion tour. There Jo and fellow performer Graham and guitarist Paul bicker and prepare. They also perform some of their numbers. Debbie, a comically loquacious neighbor befriends them causing more complications.
As the heroine, Stephanie Wright Thompson is vibrantly intense and animated, resembling a young Susan Sarandon, and is the compelling focus of the show. Bearded, laconic and brooding, Joe Curnette as her ex-boyfriend has a romantic charm that is very engaging. Michael Dalto as the jovial guitar player brings able comic relief and a sweet humanity to the trio.
The shorthaired brunette chatterbox neighbor in denim shorts and a striped tank top is strikingly performed by Marc Bovino. The conceit of Debbie being played by a man is at first jarring but Mr. Bovino’s winning performance is so ingratiating that belief is soon suspended. Often hilarious, he also brings great depth, creating a wistful, fully rendered portrait of small town despair.
Director Lila Neugebauer has impressively staged this production balancing the many technical aspects of it with the sensitivity of the characters yielding an often mesmerizing and mysterious quality. The delirious Halloween party where the costumed characters dance and iconic rock songs are played is a visual highlight.
The detailed dingy motel room is the excellent work of set designer Laura Jellinek. Asta Bennie Hostetter’s costumes are fabulously true to the era and suit each character perfectly. The variety of music and effects are dynamically realized by Stowe Nelson’s sound design. The shifting moods and time periods are commandingly enhanced by Mike Inwood’s crisp and purposefully obtrusive lighting design.
Theatrical pyrotechnics aside, the interaction of the four main characters is often very moving and combined with the 1970’s sensibilities, themes and visuals cumulatively make this work haunting.
The Essential Straight & Narrow (through June 14th, 2014)
The Mad Ones
The New Ohio Theatre, 154 Christopher Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 888-596-1027 or visit http://www.newohiotheatre.org
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission