Really Hot for Teacher

I don’t think Peter Howard actually exists, but I have sat through enough awkward lectures to know that the bumbling science professor portrayed by Mitch Montgomery is certainly a lived-in specimen. Howard is the protagonist and, more importantly, hero, of FringeNYC entry Triumph of the Underdog, co-created and –written by Montgomery with Morgan Allen and directed by Barbara Williams. The audience assembled for Underdog at Pace University’s Schaeberle Studio Theatre also doubles as the guest audience for a presentation by Howard on science fiction. Howard is apparently a has-been whose two novels and numerous warnings about cosmic dangers have gone unheeded. And Montgomery’s performance is rife with the uneasy tics of a man uncomfortable with others and himself. Howard, recently let go from his job as an NYU professor, stutters, laughs at his own unfunny jokes, condescends to his audience and gets increasingly miffed at his projectionist over some rather minor grievances.

Then, all of a sudden, his prophecy about the sun comes true and it falls on Howard to save the day, redeem himself and save the world. Montgomery taps into a deep reservoir of energy to keep Howard a man in manic motion, running back and forth across the stage, chugging Red Bulls and communicating with his ex-colleague via radio and cell phone. It is no small feat to command the stage for an hour and a half by one’s self, but the star also manages to keep his audience drawn in throughout as well.

Knowledge of science and science fiction is not necessary to enjoy Underdog, but it sure helps. Montgomery drops a lot of references to the sci-fi canon, but doesn’t always exercise restraint – why name-check Battlestar Galactica or Star Trek once when he can do it multiple times? The result is that the material can, at times, feel derivative. But leave it to Montgomery also to rein his audience back in with a performance so creative, so comical, and so consistent that it can truly be called out of this world.

Triumph of the Underdog is part of the 2008 New York International Fringe Festival.

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