Shock Value

Lenny & Lou, a new play by Ian Cohen receiving its New York premiere at 29th Street Rep, bills itself as a "brutal" comedy that takes a raunchy look at family dysfunction. Cohen and 29th Street Rep are quite taken with being "in your face." And while words like "demented," "debauched," "disturbing," and "shocking" are bandied about in the production's advertising to promote this supposedly edgy work, Lenny & Lou amounts to little more than a third-rate situation comedy at best, and an unfunny exercise in forced acting and weak direction at worst. Polar-opposite brothers Lenny (David Mogentale) and Lou (Todd Wall) can't get a break. They tend to their Alzheimer's-afflicted mother Fran (Suzanne Toren), bound together by obligation as they while away the days of their empty, meaningless lives. Irresponsible Lenny dreams of being a rock star. Stuck in a loveless, emotionally destructive marriage with mafia princess Julie (Heidi James), Lenny is nothing more than a pathetic, middle-aged wannabe rock 'n' roller.

The tightly wound Lou hasn't fared much better. Haunted by a love that got away, he hasn't had a date in 15 years. He works as an accountant, obsessing over his job to the point where he works through his vacations. When the inappropriate Fran goes too far, Lou finally snaps, sending the family smashing into a million little crazy pieces.

The problems start with Cohen's astonishingly unfunny script. Plagued by ill-conceived caricatures and a contrived plot, Lenny & Lou never has chance. Each of the five characters fits neatly into a stereotypical, and disturbingly ethnocentric, compartment. Lenny, Lou, and Fran are typical stock Jewish characters out of Neil Simon by way of Woody Allen. Lenny is the slacker. Lou is the neurotic. Fran is the crazy mother. Julie is the loudmouthed, pushy, domineering Italian princess. Fran's nurse Sabrina (Carolyn Michelle Smith), a Haitian immigrant, is the deeply religious, sane one caught in the crossfire. Not one of the characters ever amounts to anything beyond being a superficial type.

As for the plot, it is tedious. The first three scenes, where the characters are slowly introduced, establishes very little. The play only becomes engaging, albeit briefly, in the fourth scene with Sabrina's arrival. As Lou plays a cat-and-mouse game with her, the play and the actors momentarily spring to life with crackling dialogue and a fast-paced urgency.

The second act is overcome by too many subplots. What happened to Sabrina? Will Lenny and Julie work it out? Will Julie kill Lenny? Will Lou be found out? Will Julie and Lou find true happiness? The disturbing incest subplot is best forgotten. All this leads to the "surprise" ending that is anything but a surprise.

Much of Cohen's would-be humor comes not from the limp dialogue but from broad, stale situations. Unfortunately for him and the audience, this leaves the ball firmly in director Sturgis Warner's court. Under his anemic direction, Lenny & Lou flounders. The staging is pedestrian, and attempts at sight gags fall flat. Of particular note is a blatantly unfunny sex scene between Julie and Lenny, complete with gratuitous nudity that comes off as offensive and uncomfortable. Warner allows his actors to run amok, offering little if any guidance.

Mogentale and James suffer most from Warner's lax direction. As a sexually explosive, bickering couple who hate as much as they love, their chemistry fizzles. Mogentale struggles to find his footing as the immature Lenny, but ultimately succumbs to the script's many failings by relying on bugged eyes and cross-dressing to score laughs. James's Julie screams a lot and squints her eyes in anger, but manages a great accent and a well-executed tough-girl façade.

Wall finds a few moments of honesty in the loud script. He imbues Lou with an appropriately lost stare and an unwavering conviction that almost makes the character likable, despite his actions. As Fran, Toren makes the best of her largely underwritten role. Her character is decidedly unlikable, yet Toren commits to every moment, however salacious they may be. In one of the play's few bright spots, Carolyn Michelle Smith turns in a funny and engaging performance in the all too brief role of Sabrina.

Lenny & Lou wants so much to be shocking. From every trite vulgarity to each hackneyed scenario, it begs its audience to applaud its daring indecency. But in its efforts to provoke, the only thing brutal about this play is having to sit through it.

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