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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Review- Tell It To Me Slowly (FringeNYC)

The Fab Marquee review by Karen Tortora-Lee.

Believe it or not, there was actually a time when reality TV was not the norm, and when someone's idea of filming a family just going about their daily lives was considered a brilliant concept. Yes, once upon a time this idea was considered ground breaking, innovative, and unique. And so, a film crew descended upon a Californian family, and let the cameras roll.

I don't need to tell you that the result was the now infamous An American Family,which captured the lives of the Loud Family. I also don't need to tell you that it's largely credited for opening the door to almost all voyeuristic television which came afterward. Albert Brooks, not knowing how prophetic he was being, parodied the process of reality TV with his 1979 mocumentary Real Life, which showed the ridiculous lengths to which the crew, producers, camera people and studio heads will go to in order to get "good TV". Naturally, at some point, the fourth wall is blurred and Albert Brooks becomes somewhat more involved with the family than he should. Thirty years ago this was an almost unthinkable satirical parody. Thirty years later...well...his movie is still comedic, but for a whole other reason.

Fast forward to Tell It To Me Slowly (written by Daniella Shoshan and directed Jeremiah Matthew Davis) which takes place in the present: in this over stimulated, over filmed, no-information-is-too-much-information-anymore generation and we find what has grown to become a very typical TV family. Gone is the cookie cutter TV family we once considered archetypal: Mom, Dad, 2.3 Children, a Dog, and perhaps a Grandparent or Nanny/Housekeeper/Live-in of some sort. Now we have the neurotic mom Pam (Piper Gunnarson), the jaded teen Noah (Mary Quick), the not-too-bright-son Squish (Justin Gillman), the token adopted kid Peng (Chester Poon) the long-gone father, and the crown jewel of the family (and the whole reason for the reality show, by the way), drug addled, halfway-to-dead son Lucas (Tom Slot) who is off in a never never land that resembles a pool but could just as easily be the recesses of his own little mind.

When we first meet this family it's by way of daughter Noah (who has a Sara Gilbert quality to her) who is talking to Camera 1 (Grant Boyd) in an earnest "confessional", complaining about how her mother probably went too far in preparing hummus for the crew--doesn't this break the 4th wall? When Pam comes on the scene, concerned about the fact that The Contractor (James MacBean) she hired to redo the house specifically "for this" is now two weeks late, thus loudly clashing with the filming, her prattling manner, her swollen vocabulary, and her inability to shed her facade gives us a perfect snippet into the head of this terribly obsessive compulsive woman who is not so much worried about her son's recovery as she is how she will appear to the world as she navigates on video through her son's drug problem.

Soon enough The Producer (Jehan O. Young) descends upon the scene, obviously disappointed by the footage Camera 1 and Camera 2 (Bari Robinson) have been collecting while she has been off spending time with Lucas. She gives Pam and family a little pep talk, urging them to dig deeper, try harder, be realer, show MORE. Her thin veneer of concern barely masks the hard steely intention which drives her; she needs the shot, she needs the tears, she needs the goods. While Noah is convinced that this show is all about getting some back story so that an expert can be brought in to save her brother, we're let in on the secret that really...there's no one coming. This is all about getting good TV.

There are nine characters in this play, and while I understand that at times there needs to be a tremendous amount of action going on in order to convey to the audience that this is all a circus, sometimes it really does a disservice to the story line. I felt the character of The Contractor was built up into almost a Greek Chorus vehicle. His constant blathering on about “making things with his hands” swings widely away from what these TV people here are doing...basically making things up.

Point made, mister, but in such a tightly written well acted play, this was the one character who just didn't come together for me. Almost like perennial busybody handyman Eldin Bernecky from the old Murphy Brown show there were times I just wanted to tell him to mind his own business and go back to measuring the walls. Similarly, there are moments between him and Camera 2 which I felt were just manufactured in order to justify having them around. And while some of the most amusing moments of the play are seen when Squish and his adopted brother Peng (who are on the synchronized swim team) move, speak, and think in perfect unison even though they are obviously not twins, this one note joke gets old. When the pressure of what is happening around them causes them to break apart for the first time, it's not exactly pivotal, and at that point, once they've lost their “thing”, there is little else for them to do.

Tom Slot plays Lucas in a poetically drug-induced mixture of touching sentiment and foregone cynicism. From the bottom of a pool he waxes touchingly about his brother's foot and entreats his mother to look at him before he disappears. At times his points are difficult to understand, but then again, it does a lot to capture the other plain of consciousness he's inhabiting.

The bests moments of this play rest with Pam, Noah, and The Producer. Piper Gunnarson is absolutely heartbreaking as she explains why she adopted Peng; and her inability to pull away her mask, even when she knows that it might save her child, is shocking. Mary Quick's Noah is completely opposite on the spectrum: so real, so ready to open up, so ready to do whatever it takes to fix her brother, that she'd even sacrifice her own privacy, regardless of how absurd she finds the whole convoluted, constructed, manufactured process.

Finally, the real scene stealer is Jehan O. Young who has the ability to play layers and layers of emotion so clearly that she is brilliant to watch. What could have been pure caricature in a lesser actor's hands becomes finely nuanced and deftly played. Ultimately, while what she does for a living is a little sleazy, this is a woman who must get through her workday just like all of us, it's just that her workday involved filming junkies, and getting enough good footage, cutaways and reaction shots from the families in order to justify the price of the “specialist” who gets flown in at the end. If it's worth it.

The end of this play is terribly chilling and stark. But as The Producer says towards the end, these shows are so popular because while not everyone knows what it's like to race around the world, or be stranded on an island, everyone knows agony.

The New York International Theatre Festival
False Start Productions present
Tell It To Me Slowly
The Robert Moss Theater

Remaining Performance: Saturday, August 29th at 2pm. For tickets and more information visit

The Robert Moss Theater | 440 Lafayette, 3rd Floor | Manhattan.

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