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Theatre in Review: I Spy a Spy (Theatre at St. Clement's)

Andrew Mayer and company. Photo: Russ Rowland.

I'm not much of a conspiracy theorist, but you're never going to convince me that I Spy a Spy isn't the fruit of a plot by Julian Assange and Russian hackers (assisted, maybe, by Kim Jong Un), aimed at undermining America's theatrical way of life. Fortunately, their nefarious scheme is easily exposed: This attempt at crafting a typical lighthearted Off Broadway musical comedy is weirdly disconnected from reality as we know it. It enters, plants its feet at stage center, and belts out a loud, false note. Watching it is rather like listening to show tunes translated into Esperanto.

Vaguely inspired by the case of Anna Chapman, who, in 2010, was deported to Russia for her espionage activities (and who, with her red hair and sultry looks, was catnip to New York's tabloids), I Spy a Spy has a plot that beggars description but -- strictly in service to my country -- I'll try: José, an undocumented "Dreamer," struggles to get by in New York after his parents are returned to Mexico. He toils part-time for Sunny, the owner of a Korean deli, whose husband hasn't been seen in ten years, and also for Abdul, whose fusion fast-food joint serves up Hawaiian chicken tikka pizza and gefilte fish kabobs. Sunny and Abdul are avowed enemies who blatantly spy on each other, but sharing the same Hell's Kitchen block with them is a laundry run by a real Russian spy, code-named Cold Borscht, assisted by his fetching daughter, Alina (code name: Cheese Blini).

Things are looking down for the Borscht/Blini combo, as Moscow is threatening to replace them with an attitudinal Millennial computer hacker code-named Beef Stroganoff. (If nothing else, watching I Spy a is likely to have you making after-theatre dinner plans.) Cold Borscht, horrified at the idea, declares, "Any Tom, Dick, or Boris can hack in some basement." Forced to prove their mettle, father and daughter are tasked with recovering the mayor's tax returns, which the Kremlin intends to use for blackmail purposes. (The show is set in 2010; the idea that Michael Bloomberg had sizzling, scandalous tax records is probably the funniest thing in the show.) Alina, who, even if she can cough in Morse code, is ineffective at her job -- among other things, she keeps blurting out the truth about her career to total strangers -- enlists as a confederate José, who carries a Liberty-sized torch for her. A quid pro quo is involved: José owes several thousand dollars to Prisciliana, "Hell's Kitchen's godmother," who sneaked him into the country; Alina vows to help him ace the competition for New Face of New York, a kind of variant of the Miss Subways campaign, which comes with a $10,000 prize. José, by the way, wants nothing more than to be a famous actor -- an odd ambition for someone who stands to get kicked out of the country the minute somebody notices him.

In fact, the running joke of José's relative invisibility -- characters are always calling him Pedro and asking him for a cocktail -- is the point. Alina's blonde, Slavic good looks have a traffic-stopping quality that keeps her from working undercover. José, on the other hand, can go pretty much anywhere, allowing him to purloin those tax returns along with the mayor's security code, the location of his secret command bunker, and the tail coide of his private jet. Before the show is over, José will have unmasked the creator of Bitcoin, exposed a corrupt arms deal, and become a double agent. He also finds the whereabouts of Amelia Earhart and Jimmy Hoffa. (All right, I made the last two up.)

If I haven't made myself clear, this is a terminally silly exercise of the sort that only seems to happen when the hot weather clouds producers' minds. Abdul and Sunny -- who, of course, secretly adore each other -- alarm the authorities with dirty tricks and anonymous letters, hurling wild accusations at each other. While José is running around New York stealing secrets, Prisciliana all but kidnaps Alina and turns her into a sexy celebrity who pouts for the camera on cue. It will probably only confuse matters if I add that everyone ends up in Coney Island, at a place called Klub Karamazov, where a Russian spy-of-the-year competition is being held and a chorus of agents in red trench coats and fur hats kick up their heels.

Safe to say that Jamie Jackson's book is an unclassified dossier of feeble jokes and tortuous plot complications. (Cold Borscht tells Beef Stroganoff -- I can't believe I'm typing these names -- that when he and Alina have triumphed, "you [will] slink back to your mother's basement with her Christmas decorations!" "You mean her menorah," Beef Stroganoff replies.) Aside from the title tune, which has definite earworm possibilties, the score -- lyrics by Jackson, music by Sohee Youn -- is of the heard-today, forgotten-tomorrow variety. If the director, Bill Castellino, doesn't add much sparkle, really what were the chances? Among the cast members, Andrew Mayer has a big voice and an ingratiating personality as José, and Emma Degerstedt -- who charmed last season in Desperate Measures -- is solid as Alina, to the point of forcing her eleven o'clock number, "So Long," into something like a showstopper. (The book does little or nothing to make a case for José and Alina as potential lovers.) Everyone else -- especially Sorab Wadia as Abdul and Hazel Anne Raymundo as Sunny -- soldiers on bravely, with John Wascavage showing some real comic technique as Beef Stroganoff.

In addition, James Morgan has supplied one of his painterly, magazine-illustration set designs, featuring three periaktoi that prove most helpful in moving the action from location to location. Michael Gottlieb's lighting and Tyler M. Holland's costumes are perfectly fine. The sound design, by One Dream Sound, is, arguably, too loud for the book scenes, but remarkalbly crisp and intelligible during the songs; this is something of an achievement in this acoustically difficult space.

Amazingly, this giddy spyathon is promoted as a tribute to the American dream. (There's even a number called that.) But I'm not buying it; clearly, it is a ruse concocted by foreign agents. I Spy a Spy is like a gefilte fish kebab of a musical: You can try it, but will you like it? --David Barbour

(22 July 2019)

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