Jack Quinn

Victor Gluck

Chip Deffaa

Spirits of Exit Eleven
By: Joel Benjamin
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Deborah Rayne and Nicole Balsam in a
scene from Spirits of Exit Eleven
(Photo credit: Donna Alberico Photography)

Michael Puzzo’s new play Spirits of Exit Eleven at the Lion Theatre on Theatre Row isn’t profound, but it also isn’t pretentious. It is what it is—a little slice of life in blue collar New Jersey with just a touch of otherworldliness to spice things up. At Smitty’s Tittys and Pies, a tired pizzeria/pole-dancing joint, five characters—perhaps, six (or seven)—go through their dreary, but interesting, interdependent lives on Halloween night.

Facing competition from a new joint across the highway, an anxious Butchy (Michael Carlsen), ST&P’s manager, costumed as a rather bedraggled Frankenstein monster, berates MT/Marie Therese (Deborah Rayne) for her Eskimo costume, an odd for her strip act. Butchy wracks his brain for some other gimmicks to keep the place solvent, including making fancier pizza. Sitting in the restaurant, half-drunk is Tommy (Stephen Payne), an older regular who has seen everything and doesn’t shy away from bringing up uncomfortable memories. Completing the cast are Nicole Balsam as the other stripper Agatha and Shane Patrick Kearns as the Young Man who applies for the job of fancy pizza maker, but, it turns out, has an agenda all his own. Unseen is Smitty, the owner, and the spirit of Tina, a stripper, whose death a year before still reverberates throughout the play, particularly when the jukebox eerily plays the late Tina’s favorite song whether plugged in or not.

Nothing much actually happens at a delightfully leisurely pace. They bicker, argue and reveal their innermost secrets and worries. Will Butchy hire the eager Young Man? Why is the Young Man so eager? (The reason is revealed late in the play.) This revelation, plus the fact that the two young strippers find out that Smitty has been using hidden cameras to spy on them, leads to a very funny revolt that keeps this slice of life comedy chugging along.

Mr. Puzzo’s ear for the way his characters speak is uncanny. He knows that these people yearn for a better life. They speak in a carefully detailed local accent, using the occasional multi-syllable word that they probably heard on TV or remember from some high school English class, and make reference to Greek tragedies and other literary works. They overdo gestures and are passionate about everything from their makeup to their drinks.

Shane Patrick Kearns, Stephen Payne and Michael Carlsen in
a scene from Spirits of Exit Eleven
(Photo credit: Donna Alberico Photography)

Director Frank Licato has a good feel for pacing and filling in the non-verbal moments.

All the actors created believable characters which will get more and more refined and details as the play continues its run. Miss Balsam’s Agatha managed to be fragile but strong. Her pole colleague, MT, was given robust life by Miss Rayne. Mr. Carlsen’s Butchy was hard-crusted but soft inside. Mr. Payne’s Tommy was a great observer without disappearing into the melee while Mr. Kearns’ Young Man, though blandly written, became more exciting as the play unfolded.

David Meyer’s set from the tinsel curtains in the doorways to the Formica counters is dead on as are the costumes by Alexis Forte. Alisa Boniello’s pole-dancing choreographer looked authentic without going overboard. The lighting design by Adam H. Greene created many moods, helped by Donald Stark’s sounds, include the weird jukebox.

Spirits of Exit Eleven is an entertainingly staged little corner of a little world.

Spirits of Exit Eleven (through February 2nd, 2013)
Lion Theatre on Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, bet. 9th & 10th Avenues, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200/800-432-7250 or visit http://www.telecharge.com
More Information: http://www.spiritsofexiteleven.com

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