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Martin Denton, Martin Denton

A celebration of the unsung accomplishments of a New York Theater critic who helped make the annual Fringe Festival a theatrical force to be reckoned with.

Marisol Rosa-Shapiro and Chris Harcum in a scene from “Martin Denton, Martin Denton” (Photo credit: Cilla Villaneuva)

David Kaufman

David Kaufman, Critic

Though its title may instantly bring to mind Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, Martin Denton, Martin Denton is neither as funny nor as aimless as that brilliant, breakthrough TV series of the mid-1970’s was. This new play by Chris Harcum means to celebrate the unsung accomplishments of, well, Martin Denton, a New York Theater critic, who, along with his mother Rochelle, helped make the annual Fringe Festival a theatrical force to be reckoned with. The play makes only too clear that the Dentons did a lot more for the New York theater community during the past couple of decades.

With an engaging Harcum playing Denton and a young Marisol Rosa-Shapiro as Rochelle–“and many others,” as noted in the program–Martin Denton is performed in a cramped, black box of a space: the Kraine Theater, where Denton himself doubtlessly reviewed many a show. It is not as Denton but as himself, “Chris,” that Harcum tells us at the beginning, “The play is set on a Wednesday afternoon in October 2014 when the Dentons first moved out of New York City.”

In the spirit of being a critic, the play is always describing and commenting on itself, in other words, even as it unfolds–a kind of meta-theater experience that may not be to everyone’s liking; but it surely replicates much of the Off and Off-Off Broadway theater and performance art to which Denton devoted so much of his energies. It’s also prone to overly precious lines, such as, “So I look in a thing called the newspaper,” underscoring the degree to which Denton grew to rely on his computer skills. “I’m good with software and hardware,” he tells us.

A loving tribute to the man it’s named for, Martin Denton backs up to tell us his personal story, including a “nice childhood” in Washington, D.C., during “a time without video games or the internet,” with his older sister Nita and his parents, who “love the theater.” Though it includes scenes from Our Town and references to countless other shows, Martin Denton comes to focus on the eponymous character’s creating a blog site (nytheatre.com) that eventually encompasses reviews by other critics. As Denton himself says near the end of the play that bears his name, “we published 187 plays in 16 books and 1,347 plays online, with over 2,000 blog posts and 459 podcasts.” What’s more Denton had reviewed 3,032 shows and “edited 7,399 reviews for a total of 10,431.”

Chris Harcum and Marisol Rosa-Shapiro in a scene from “Martin Denton, Martin Denton” (Photo credit: Cilla Villaneuva)

It helps to be something of a theater geek yourself, to follow much of the inside-story. To know, for instance, that Ron Lasko is a behind-the-scenes theater publicist, or to understand that the reference to “a three-hour musical about people peeing” is actually Urinetown, the surprise Fringe hit, which, given the subject matter, Denton was advised to avoid, and avoid it he did.

While Harcum based his script on interviews with Denton, it’s peppered with advice for other critics, such as, “You don’t know what happens in rehearsal and you shouldn’t assume you do,” and, “If you think you know everything, go to the theater with someone who doesn’t.” Denton’s admirable approach to the theater was to always be susceptible to what he saw.

On the other hand, Denton clearly broke what for many theater critics is a cardinal rule: to maintain objectivity by never interacting with playwrights, producers, or others involved in any given production. He even says, in Martin Denton, “I asked Chris Harcum for some advice when we had dinner last summer about how he does his solo shows,” before adding, “I prefer it when [Chris] does serious stuff, not when he does silly stuff.”

Though Harcum’s performance as Denton is, in a word, endearing, the play he wrote keeps veering from being earnest and serious to being silly, with schizophrenic results. With only a modicum of success, Marisol Rosa-Shapiro tries too hard to differentiate the many characters she portrays. Director Aimee Todoroff might have abetted Rosa-Shapiro more by getting her to tone down her affectations. Nor do Barbara Davidson’s costume designs provide much to describe or respond to, with Harcum confined to a plaid shirt and tan trousers and Rosa-Shapiro to a green-patterned top and black pants. However, Matthew Fischer’s sound design is worth noting, for its occasionally startling but familiar-sounding effects: slot-machines in Atlantic City, anyone?

Martin Denton, Martin Denton (through July 23, 2017)

Elephant Run District & Frigid New York@ Horse Trade

Kraine Theater, 85 East 4th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, http://www.elephantrundistrict.org

Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission

David Kaufman
About David Kaufman (28 Articles)
David Kaufman has been covering the theater in New York since 1981. A former theater critic for the New York Daily News, he was also a long-time contributor to the Nation, Vanity Fair, the Village Voice and the New York Times. He is also the author of the award-winning Ridiculous! The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam, the best-selling Doris Day: The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door, and his most recent biography, Some Enchanted Evenings: The Glittering Life and Times of Mary Martin.

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