By Stanford Friedman
Remember how the French mime, Marcel Marceau, would often find himself trapped inside of a cube? There is a seed of that existential dilemma in Dominique Salerno’s one-woman act, The Box Show. Or perhaps you’ve heard the myth of how psychologist B.F. Skinner raised his daughter in a so-called Skinner Box, a device otherwise used for studying animal behavior? Ms. Salerno must certainly be a descendant. And, of course, you know the insta-classic Saturday Night Live video wherein Justin Timberlake presents the ultimate boxed gift to his girlfriend. There is a stroke or two of that vein of humor here as well. But of all the boxy similes to employ in describing an actor portraying 25 different characters while stuffed inside of a medium-sized cupboard, the most accurate would be – and forgive me – The Box Show is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.
With no connective tissue to speak of, the numerous sketches that have Ms. Salerno portraying women, men, children, sex organs and various inanimate objects work best when they are either short or silly or wordless. She is a gifted physical comedian, best exemplified when, with the Mission: Impossible theme playing, she somehow transforms her 3’x3’x2′ space into a labyrinth of ducts and tunnels. Also rather brilliant is a scene where two kids rehearse a dance for their summer camp talent show and we see them only from the knees down, with the actor’s arms and hands costumed as the boy’s legs and feet.
As a playwright, Ms. Salerno shows a flare for the zany. At one point, she portrays a diamond engagement ring who tries to instill confidence in a nervous guy before he pops the question, “I could have stayed as I was and been burned alive as a fossil fuel. But you know what? I decided to make something of myself. So I pressed hard… really hard….” Other wonderfully weird moments have her being a 40 foot tall woman who excels at car washes, and a happy-go-lucky fetus on the verge of leaving the womb. However, when the writing tries to go deep or go long, it fumbles. A lengthy stay inside the Trojan horse is fairly suffocating, and an endless argument between a singer and her mixing board operator at a recording studio is overly complex and humorless.
There are also some pacing issues that director Sash Bischoff has yet to solve. The first several scenes fly by in rapid-fire succession, so our expectations are set for speedy transitions. But, as the show progresses, several lengthy costume changes call for prolonged blackouts that drain the show’s momentum.
I had been trying to catch up to The Box Show for a while, having missed its runs at Dixon Place, FringeNYC (where it won an Overall Excellence award) and last year’s United Solo Theatre Festival (Best Comedic Script). It has found an ideal, if temporary, home now at The Peoples Improv Theater (a.k.a. The PIT), an erstwhile improv comic club that boasts a large, dynamic bar up front and a sparkling black box main stage that holds an audience of 88 in its well-kept stadium seating, complete with cup holders. Skinner’s daughter would be envious.
The Box Show – Written and performed by Dominique Salerno; directed by Sash Bischoff.
Scenic design by Ann Beyersdorfer, lighting by Rebecca Schafer; Lindsay Kipnis, stage manager. At The Peoples Improv Theater – The Striker, 123 East 24th Street, 212-563-7488, http://thepit-nyc.com/box-show/. October 12 through November 6. Running time: 90 minutes.