Mixed Bag

When this Friday or Saturday night comes around, do your immortal soul a favor and go to church. No, not the big one on Park Avenue. I'm talking about the one that congregates in the downstairs cabaret space at Theater for a New City. This worship service is called Suck Sale...and Other Indulgences, and Evan Laurence presides as the high cleric of indulgent absurdity. Suck Sale is actually a collection of four performance pieces, two scripted and two improvised, that were conceived, written, and directed by Laurence. As the title suggests, he doesn't conceal the fact that this is his own self-indulgent ritual. Whether audiences take part in it or sit in respectful silence is up to them, and probably not even a concern to him. Laurence and his cast are having so much fun that it becomes a downright religious experience.

In the first piece, Suck Sale, Mimi Dieux-Veau invites two vacuum cleaner salesmen into her home under the pretense of deciding who has the best sucking machine. Dieux-Veau, played with disturbing sensibility by Tanya Everett, is a combination of Donna Reed and a tribal priestess. Brian Ferrari and Laurence play the salesmen, and each recounts the startling experiences that have led them into the melancholy life of heaving Hoovers, before the two learn they've been brought together for a different reason. From there the sanity of the situation fractures, as Priestess Mimi uses her ability to control the salesmen's movements like puppets and then actually turns them into Punch and Judy puppets for a while.

The piece gives way to some shtick in The Sybil, in which Laurence takes two suggestions from the audience and improvises a 10-minute scene. He successfully conjures up three characters: a man, his wife, and, well, a hemorrhoid goblin that is setting off firecrackers inside the man's rear end. Each of the characters, amazingly, has separate character arcs, voices, and styles of movement, and Laurence plays the scene until its inevitable conclusion. Unfortunately, this was an early performance in the show's run (opening night, in fact), and the house wasn't as charged as it needed to be for this kind of improv.

The small audience perked up a little for the third piece, Edith the Head Takes Manhattan, in which Laurence plays a disfigured World War II refugee, Edith, who seems to have lost her entire body. Laurence plays this bit in a magnificent giant head puppet that is bigger than his entire body. I am not really clear if this monstrous creation should be considered costuming (designed by Mary-Anne Buyondo, Corinne Darroux, and Josefin Sandling) or props (designed by Kate Odermatt and—who else?—Laurence). But my admiration goes to the appropriate member of the design team, because the puppet was spectacular.

This section is "moderated" by David Slone, who reads from a text that describes Edith's journey from Europe to America. This text is not unlike the Mad-Libs word game; Slone reads a line of text like "When Edith swam across the Atlantic Ocean to America, she swam with..." and the audience decides that Edith swam "with mermaids." Laurence and Slone then would act out that scene. This sketch, unlike The Sybil, had the added pressure involved in completing the text Slone was reading, and unfortunately the giant head gag wore a little thin. Even so, the raw, creative ludicrousness of a gigantic head making love to Albert Einstein is something that demands respect both in its conception and execution.

The fourth and final piece, Four Better or Worse?, is the culmination of Laurence's sermon. Imagine Donald Marguiles's Dinner With Friends, except the two men have fallen in love with each other, and the two women seek spiritual enlightenment by summoning arcane tribal spirits that ultimately possess one and drastically age the other. Did I mention the mind swaps, the time-traveling fetuses, the multidimensional wormholes opened by alien anal probes (so that's what those aliens have been up to all these years!), or a messiah who is upset that his stigmata bleeds onto all of his alms money? Laurence crams every type of humor from the previous pieces into this final explosion of absurdity. It is all very raw and offers the appropriate sensory overload for the show's conclusion.

Aside from the lack of audience enthusiasm for the improvised segments at this particular performance, Suck Sale draws you in with the same morbid curiosity that attends driving past a car crash. Laurence consistently outdoes himself and takes the humor to another level, daring audiences to follow him. Even the lighting design and technical elements by Mi Sun Choi and Heejung Noh seemed to be improvised, and lighting cues that happened just a second too late added to the show's charming slipshod aesthetic.

Charming as Suck Sale is, it was clear the cast was a little nervous about whether the audience "got it." Smaller audiences are inevitably quieter audiences, and the lack of vocal response seemed to affect the timing and overall mood. There is a great wealth of strong material in Laurence's work, but a larger audience might coax out its absurdity better.

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