Jean-Claude van Itallie, one of the key figures in New York’s Off-Off Broadway theater in the 1960’s, takes on Trumpian politics in his new play, The Fat Lady Sings (directed by David Schweizer). Clearly, van Itallie still feels at home at the La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, where he developed some of his most influential early work, including parts of his landmark anti-war trilogy, America Hurrah. The fire in this playwright’s belly can still radiate heat in the East Village more than a half century after the premiere of his most famous title.
This new satirical play is not plot heavy, unless you consider the final flickering of a dying American Dream to constitute plot. Fat Lady is, instead, a combination reality show, game show and home-shopping program, all broadcast from a literal Ship of State. As designed by Caleb Wertenbaker, it seems a rickety vessel, held together by spit, baling wire and stale slogans of the patriarchy. At curtain, cardboard signs designate the various areas of the ship: main deck, poop deck and hold. At the helm is self-glorifying and hideously corrupt Franklin (the energetic and game Tony Torn). Torn doesn’t portray Franklin as a Donald Trump caricature, exactly, but anybody who’s been paying attention in the last few years will have no trouble seeing a resemblance.
Franklin’s wife, “Mom” (professional opera singer Lauren Flanigan), spends all but a few moments at play’s end seated center stage in a worn leopard-pattern throne, where she tends to her broken arm. Franklin, it turns out, comes from a long line of wife abusers, although Mom notes that “he didn’t mean anything” by inflicting the most recent fracture on her. Franklin has also apparently managed to impregnate his daughter, Mary (Nancy McArthur), who at times impersonates a beauty-pageant contestant. Her periodic retching may be a result of sea-sickness, morning sickness, or a combo of both. Franklin also regularly bullies his two sons, the striving-to-be-macho Ed (Jake Horowitz) and the spectacularly gay Tim (Jose Useche). McArthur, Horowitz, and Useche all help make van Itallie’s bitter comedic moments come alive.
The play comes on like gangbusters. It sprawls in a cartoony, verbally expansive fashion that at times calls to mind Walt Whitman. It’s fast and noisy, it’s got some rough edges, and it may take audience members some time to tune in to all of its rambunctious verbal and physical shtick. But Fat Lady is likable in its own rough-hewn way. And one never doubts either the urgency in van Itallie’s text or the commitment of the actors who deliver it.
There are repeated patterns that draw you into the play, such as Mom’s directive to her family to wash their hands (punctuated by a dinner-bell sound). Another recurring sequence centers on Franklin’s periodic inquiries about Big Red, the ship’s cat, depicted in a projection by Johnny Rogers as an eerie-looking mechanical-toy feline, frolicking goofily as sound designer John Albano’s soundtrack plays “Three Blind Mice.”
The contributions of Rogers, Albano and lighting designer Kirk Bookman bring a sheen to the proceedings that doesn’t quite match the crude street-theater look of the Wertenbaker set or costume designer Daniel Dabdoub’s somewhat ragtag nautical sportswear looks. Perhaps it would have been better had director Schweizer gone for a more polished effect throughout—and if he’d modulated the energy to a slightly less frenetic level.
Some of the more effective stretches of the play are, in fact, the relatively subdued ones, which frequently center on Mom. The most memorable sequence of all is the very last one, in which Flanigan delivers a juicy monologue suggesting that the broken ship can only sail again if powered with some matriarchal energy. In this somewhat optimistic sign-off, van Itallie may also be slyly saluting a couple of particular mother figures: La MaMa itself—and its founder, the late Ellen Stewart.
The Fat Lady Sings (through April 7, 2019)
La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, in association with Shantigar Foundation
La MaMa’s Downstairs Theater, 66 East 4th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-352-3101 (OvationTix) or visit http://www.lamama.org
Running Time: 80 minutes with no intermission