by Jean Sidden
Any actor with the task of working in a tiny space at The Producers Club deserves an award just for getting through the performance. The lounge next door is open for business and the noise from patrons talking and laughing, glasses and silverware clinking and the offerings from what sounded like karaoke comedy night are enough to throw anyone’s acting off. But this is New York and sympathy for actors is in short supply. All such trials make for wonderful war stories in the years to come so there’s nothing to do but buck up, go forward and, as they say, the show, The Owl and the Pussycat, must go on. If the distractions from the noise next door were used as typical urban sound we would still expect the two people occupying the imaginary apartment on the other side of the wall to rise to the occasion, pick up their volume and raise their energy level. The fact that they did not is what kept the noise in the realm of the real world and kept the play grounded. Noise or no noise, the performance overall was way too dull and normal given the quirkiness of its characters.
The nebbish Felix (Joseph Spinelli) has tattled on his semi-prostitute neighbor Doris (Leila McCann) to their landlord and gotten her evicted. She shows up at his door in the middle of the night angry and looking for a fight and, because she has nowhere else to go, plops herself down and refuses to leave his apartment. And that’s it. As with most romantic comedies, the rest of the play is the struggle to get these two disparate people together. He is stuffy, prudish, withdrawn and intellectualized in the extreme; she is open, expressive, childlike and free in the other extreme. And it is those extremes that were missing in Spinelli and McCann’s performances. At this stage, which was the first night of the play’s run, the two actors still sounded as if they are just saying lines, have a distinct absence of chemistry and look like they are having no fun with two very adorable characters. We should fall in love with each of them and their odd-funny nuances separately and yearn for them to find their way to love. Instead, with Spinelli and McCann never really listening and talking to one another or taking themselves too seriously the evening is easily sidetracked into wondering if there will be a costume malfunction with McCann’s bizarre hooker get up in the first act or if she will ever get control of her hair (her hair is a character in and of itself). These two details, and others that have not been attended to, make the performance look like the two actors staged the play themselves in their backyard for friends and family.
The lack of polish to the production is stark. There isn’t a lot of expectation for high-level technical elements in a place like The Producer’s Club but, again, this is New York so couldn’t someone have taken the thrift store tag off of McCann’s nightgown? Did anyone notice that the audience can see a shadow-play of actors changing costumes on the back wall, which is very distracting in the second act when she is supposed to be gone from the apartment. Don’t actors know by now that they can’t talk to each other offstage in a space that’s only the size of a small studio apartment because the audience can hear them? Small details such as these and others in staging and performance beg the question: Did this production have a director? The program states that Tyler Onassis directed the production so the responsibility for its unprofessional presentation falls to him. In fact, given that there are strong currents of promise in both McCann and Spinelli as actors, their hum drum performances also rest with lack of director oversight. Hopefully they will find a jolt of energy to infuse the rest of the play’s run and discover how much fun they should be having with Doris and Felix.
The Owl and the Pussycat – Written by Bill Manhoff. Directed by Tyler Onassis.
WITH: Joseph Spinelli (Felix); Leila McCann (Doris)
The Producers Club, 358 West 44th Street, New York, NY. January 28th-February 4th. Running time 2 hours. Tickets at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/1118525 or 1-800-838-3006.