Jazz Hands

Ah, the exuberance of wannabe theater professionals! It's so dear to witness their silly rituals of mock Oprah interviews, coaching each other's monologues, and … painting the toenails on their prosthetic feet? Triple Threats, now playing in its New York premiere at the Independent Theater, is not your average tale of actors being actors. Written by Los Angeles-based thespians-writers Alec Holland and Melissa Samuels, the play shows us the psychoses and bad behavior that can arise when untalented, unbalanced performers go through years of rejection. Unfortunately, it also shows us what happens when a decent play is not allowed to let its plot unfold gently and wears its craziness on its sleeve.

Actor-singer Bruce and actress-dancer Shirley share dreams of stardom and a two-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles. They consider themselves "triple threats" because, between the two of them, they're actor-singer-dancers. This is only one of many delusions that fuel their manic and fairly art-free existence. They don't take classes, choosing instead to perform along with the TV. They're looking forward to living on easy street once a settlement check comes in from the insurance company to compensate Shirley for her severed foot. Most delusional of all, they don't realize that they have no talent, and that their blind support of the other's career will always keep them from knowing the extent of their talentlessness.

Into the fray comes Kenneth, a fellow hyphenate (writer-director) who's looking for a place to live while he finishes writing a film. Kenneth is a foreign entity to Bruce and Shirley: a good-looking, fairly well-adjusted guy who's talented and having a big moment in his career. The roommates accept him into the apartment, with an eye toward bedding him and being cast in his film. Unfortunately for the new guy, he has no idea the lengths to which these two desperate people will go.

Holland and Samuels have written a mildly amusing black comedy that really requires the audience to sympathize at least in part, or even just in the beginning, with Bruce and Shirley. It shouldn't be clear right away that Kenneth shouldn't move in with them, or that they are anything but harmless, silly people who are a little high-strung.

However, the actors playing the actors let loose right away, showering the stage with their mania. Josh Painting's Bruce is a self-centered, egomaniacal closet case who fears that disclosing his sexuality will keep him from being cast as a romantic lead, not realizing that (a) he doesn't hide his homosexuality at all and (b) his "unconventional" looks will keep him from attaining leading-man status. Kat Ross's Shirley is a shrill, jumpy sycophant who trusts Bruce to do the thinking for both of them. If they started their characterizations at a 2 and then gradually worked up to a 10, we might be inclined to feel sorry for them rather than hate them.

As Kenneth, Richard Tayloe turns in a surprisingly strong performance as the normal third wheel. He takes the thankless job of straight man and radiates a naturalness and kindness, being an Everyman without stepping into Superman territory. Somehow he justifies his character's turning a blind eye to Bruce's and Shirley's come-ons in the initial interview, making us believe this guy's so hard up for a place to live that he'll deal with just about anything.

The apartment is fabulous, after all; Elisha Schaefer has clearly been hitting TKTS and the kiosks at the Port Authority for Broadway show handbills to adorn the red walls of their little place. The set design is cleverly extended along the walls of the house, with a piece of furniture propped up behind the audience to suggest that the theatergoers are sharing the space. There's also a bit of choreographed dance in the second half that uses a black light to turn the apartment wall into a stage. It would've been more effective, however, if this segment had been kept brief, with the music fading out; the joke is merely in the act of dancing, not in the way they dance.

It should be said that the performance seen for this review was on the first night of previews, and that the show was slated to open a few days later. If during the next set of performances the director is able to focus more on the setup of the dark material that is to follow and less on the comedy, he and his team could build a fine little show. In a city that often seems to be 50 percent actors, they've certainly got a captive audience.

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