A man enters the theater from the back of the audience, presenting his ticket to the usher on the stage-right aisle. As he is in an overcoat, scarf and fedora (like everyone else in attendance dressed for the unseasonably cold weather), we pay him no mind until he is theatrically lit. Then he climbs the stage, wipes his feet on the rug and takes off the coat, hat and scarf revealing a tuxedo. Clearly, he is here for an occasion. The occasion is Amusements, written and performed by Ikechukwu Ufomadu.
An almost bare stage (a drink cart with books on it, a microphone stand, a stool, and a coat rack) up against a plush red theater curtain sets the tone for the simple fare we are about to see. An example of that fare would be an early exchange Ufomadu has with the audience showing his punning dexterity in using “two”, “to” and “too” in the same sentence. This display of homophones is followed by a speech in an adept vocal impersonation of JFK.
The JFK bit is then followed by “My name is…” at which point he falters, reading from a card “Ikechukwu…Ufomadu…I hope I’m pronouncing that correctly…I’m not a comedian, but I play one on stage.” When an actor performs in his own work, we as an audience are usually put into the role of guessing whether the work is autobiographical or not, but this work defies anything that is “usual.” The comedy that follows is polite in search of a better word. Two can play Ufomadu’s game. When one looks up the word “droll” in the dictionary, we find it is used as an adjective suggesting curious or unusual in a way that provokes dry amusement. Gadzooks! Amusement? Isn’t that almost the title of this entertainment? Please note that this reviewer hasn’t used the word “play” yet. The word “droll” is also used as a noun, archaically, but still…a droll is a jester or entertainer, a buffoon. Is this a dagger which I see before me? Sorry, is this an actor which I see before me. Uh,…yes.
There are frequent breaks in thought such as “I forgot to mention at the top that I will be injecting my jokes with a bit of humor tonight as a way to keep them both engaging and fun.” Thanks for clarifying the job description. This is just one of many exclamations to the obvious.
Director Nemuna Ceesay keeps us guessing. Are we watching an actor portraying a comedian/lounge performer? Does the comedian/lounge performer think he’s funny? What if no one laughs? A bit later there’s a recitation that goes on longer than it needs to. We start waiting for a punchline that never comes. And then it does…As it was introduced as a voice-over, “That was the opening paragraph of Moby Dick by Herman Melville, sold wherever Moby Dick by Herman Melville is sold.
Warmth: “I’m the type of guy who, if you say, “hi” to me after the show, I swear to God, I will give you a warm, friendly greeting in return.” Well, we should hope so! Juxtapose that with some ill-chosen humor: “That quack tried to tell me I had Lou Gehrig’s disease. So I said, “Give it back to him then! I don’t need it.” This presentation doesn’t have the trappings of an aggressive, nasty Don Rickles-esque showman, but that remark was definitely out of character and offensive to the two people sitting in front of this reviewer who quietly picked up their coats and exited the theater. This crossed the line into “unthinking.”
A later clever riff on the Stanislavsky tenet of “there are no small parts, only small actors” becomes a three-hundred word composition that in its backpedaling and verbosity rivals the Polonius monologue in Hamlet. “Is it okay if I do a number for you?” is followed by the music to the A Chorus Line song, “One.” He shouts out the word and end of music. Well, it was a number.
The audience titters as they are duped into a sing-along of the Alphabet Song. Ufomadu takes the lead of course in a faux Frank Sinatra complete with some fine riffs…the alphabet was done four times (at last count…it could have been more than four, as we lost choristers along the way and as the sound got thinner it also got more tired).
“Times are changing. I’m telling you, one minute it’s 2:32…Next minute, it’s 2:33.” It did go on, but not without some audience groaning. But fast on the heels, is a very clever Frequently Asked Questions that is done with a slide show. There are a few “humdingers,” but the audience walks headfirst into the holiday classic “Do You Hear What I Hear?”…every verse, including some verses no one knew.
Andreea Mincic’s design is simple, but just right although the coat rack would have never made it onto the stage at Kutsher’s in the Catskills. The drink cart? Possibly. Taylor Lilly’s lighting keeps him lit, even when we wish he would just stop.
In a “Dear Audience” letter in the Playbill, we have an explanation from the playwright. “I have no conscious intention of having anyone leave the show with any big thematic takeaways (though I cannot speak for my subconscious). There are no deep moments of revelation (unless you think, as I do, that life itself is one great, ever-unfolding moment of revelation.) The show, indeed, only barely makes sense. My only aim is to entertain: to consistently create the necessary conditions for the spontaneous occurrence of laughter. There may be moments where I succeed at this. There may be moments where I fall short. And there may be disagreements from within your ranks about which moments are which.” Apology accepted???
Amusements (performed in alternating repertory with Sad Boys in Harpy Land and School Pictures through December 3, 2023)
Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.playwrightshorizons.org
Running time: 70 minutes without an intermission