The Russians are Coming?

From the moment one enters the Cabaret Theater at Theater for the New City, one is transported out of the current place and time and into the mind of a somewhat deranged man. Duet for Solo Voice, a so-called “dark comedy” written by David Scott Milton and directed by Stanley Allan Sherman, takes its audience members on the journey of Leonard Pelican, a paranoid hotel clerk. The play does a fine job of alternating between the hilariously funny and the eerily discomfiting. The piece makes for an enjoyable hour spent in the theater. The protagonist (and the only character for most of the play), Leonard, believes that he is being hunted by Vassily Chort, supposedly a noteworthy man from the Stalin regime. While performing his duties as night manager at the 43rd Street Hotel, such as procuring whores for his patrons, Leonard continuously thinks that he is being stalked by Chort and is working on a new novel about his experiences (we learn that Leonard is also a washed-up fiction writer). Most of his interactions – both with the seemingly imaginary Chort and the hotel’s guests – are extremely humorous, but the humor is often punctuated with moments of almost tangible fright. There is a particularly well-paced moment featuring Leonard about to go behind one of the hotel’s many closed doors in search of his nemesis in which the fear he is experiencing is entirely palpable.

The set and its multiple entrances and exits are both well-executed and well-utilized throughout the performance. There is a farcical quality to all of the comings and goings from the set’s main playing space of the hotel lobby. In addition, there is a truly magical sense of “how did he do that” as Jonathan Slaff, playing Leonard, exits behind the hotel counter and reenters from one of the upstage doors as Chort. The quick changes in the piece could perhaps be a tad quicker in order to intensify this startling quality and emphasize the bravado of this basically one-man show.

In the lead role, Slaff is truly brilliant. He makes Leonard seem both unassuming and completely deranged. The piece is also enhanced by the performances of “The Hotel” – portrayed by Rachel Krah and David “Zen” Mansley. The two add all of the surrounding human sounds of the hotel, notably the sighs and moans of love-making. This ambient noise goes from the absurd to the ridiculous and punctuates the play’s first half perfectly.

The play has a sense of metatheatricality, yet this theatrical self-awareness feels fresh and clever, rather than just a clichéd rehash of direct audience address or theater references. Upon entering the theater space, it seems that the work is already in progress with Leonard muttering at his desk and the hotel seemingly at its usual business. Then, suddenly, an erratic young woman storms on stage, shouting warnings that are actually the pre-show announcement. It is a simple touch that displays the coherence of Sherman’s vision and creativity. However, to tell all of the ingenious moments of the play in this review could spoil some of the joy of this piece for future spectators.

Duet for Solo Voice is a clever and original piece of theater. Slaff gives a tour-de-force performance that is worthy of commendation. Despite delivering a plethora of laughs throughout, the play’s ending leaves a distinct and meaningful impression on its viewer. Anyone who sees this play will not be sorry that they did.

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