While theatergoers flock by the thousands to see the limp Nathan Lane-Matthew Broderick revival of a Neil Simon play, the truly inspired "odd couple" is taking place just a few blocks away on West 43rd Street at Theater Three, where Candy & Dorothy Productions is premiering Candy & Dorothy. In David Johnston's flawless new work, two women who could not have been more different in life, Candy Darling (an Andy Warhol protégée) and Dorothy Day (the Catholic activist), find themselves trapped together in death. In the afterlife, they begin a journey that transcends time and space, soaring well beyond the heavens to create a story that is equal parts funny and poignant.
An occasional actress and "partial transsexual," Candy (Vince Gatton) lived life to the extreme as one of Warhol's many sidekicks. A sometimes Communist and Mao sympathizer, Dorothy (Sloane Shelton) gave her life to helping the less fortunate by working as the compassionate co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement. In death, Candy and Dorothy squabble over the present and the hereafter while reflecting upon the past.
Under the guidance of a disembodied voice (the pitch-perfect Brian Fuqua), Candy quickly takes to the afterlife, working her way up heaven's ladder as she becomes a caseworker for the newly arrived. Her first client is Dorothy. On a mission to earn her "wings," Candy attempts to teach Dorothy a lesson about her life on Earth. But her efforts are thwarted as Dorothy stubbornly helps a troubled young woman in New York City.
On Earth, 33-year-old Tamara (Nell Gwynn) is at a crossroads—literally—as she stands on the corner of First Avenue and First Street. Flat broke, stuck in a dull job, and having just had an abortion, Tamara is a mess. Her life is complicated even further when she stumbles into a relationship with a wise bartender named Sid (the very funny Amir Arison). On the verge of consummating her relationship with him, Tamara finds herself the focus of the two very unlikely guardian angels.
The heavenly duo quickly make themselves at home in Tamara's apartment, cleaning up the place, offering advice, and helping Tamara stage a protest rally. Realizing she is seeing dead people, Tamara fears she is losing her mind. Ultimately, Dorothy's otherworldly preoccupation with the living Tamara turns out to be both women's salvation. (Interestingly, Dorothy's real-life daughter was named Tamar.)
Johnston's crisp dialogue crackles with wit. He creates situations of laugh-out-loud hilarity, yet they're mingled with quiet moments of honesty. He also has a profound understanding of what makes human beings tick. Whether we watch his characters share a cup of coffee or are allowed to eavesdrop on the intimate conversation between lovers, Johnston's masterful dialogue resonates with truth.
Kevin Newbury's seamless direction is the ideal complement to Johnston's script. Newbury uses the tight space to full advantage, expertly creating a sense of claustrophobia as Tamara's life implodes. The small stage accommodates nearly a dozen settings with the addition of a simple set piece or well-placed prop.
Newbury also guides his five-person cast to polished, inspired performances. As the tortured Tamara, Gwynn delivers a thoroughly intense and raw portrayal. Brimming with excitement and honesty, she expertly finds comedy in tragedy as she displays her hilarious neuroses. As the humble Day, Shelton gives the character a dry wit and an incredulous smirk. Her deadpan delivery makes even the subtlest jokes crackle, and her natural performance never falters or hits a false note.
But even with a great script, outstanding direction, and magnificent acting, Gatton manages to run away with the show as drag queen Candy Darling. He never resorts to typical drag histrionics—no shrieking, no mincing, no letting his albeit fabulous costumes do the acting. Gatton fully inhabits Darling, disappearing into the role with such conviction and determination that you forget a man is playing a woman. It's the ultimate compliment to Darling, who wanted nothing more than to be accepted as a woman. Gatton honors that wish and Darling's memory with his brilliant rendering.
Candy & Dorothy is a hidden gem. With its combination of subtle emotion and uproarious humor, the play accomplishes the rarest of feats: it transforms you. As it leaves you with smiles and laughter, it also reminds you that a simple act of kindness can truly change one person's life. This production deserves to have a long life, and with the producers trying to move it Off-Broadway, here's hoping it does.