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Theatre in Review: A Turtle on a Fence Post (Theatre 555)

Photo: Jeremy Daniel

You will have heard that Andrew Cuomo has had a difficult year, what with being booted from the governor's office thanks to credible accusations of sexual harassment and suppressing COVID death counts in nursing homes while prepping his memoir about pandemic leadership. Given his disgrace and political exile, things could hardly get worse, right? Now comes the final indignity: a musical.

A Turtle on a Fence Post has a book by "Prisoner #11RO731." That would be Hank Morris, a political consultant who advised Dianne Feinstein and Charles Schumer on successful Congressional runs. Later, he did time in several New York prisons. As he says in the program notes, "I used my special access with the NY Comptroller to help my clients obtain investment mandates from the New York State Common Retirement Fund. My clients made a lot of money. So did I, and so did the Fund."

His real crime? In his telling, not taking Andrew Cuomo's calls.

It's typical of A Turtle on a Fence Post's wayward structure that the action must come to a full halt so a supporting character -- Morris' wife Leslie, charmingly played by Kate Loprest -- can, with the aid of charts, explain the situation. The upshot: What Morris did was seamy but not illegal -- it now is -- but attorney general Cuomo, bent on revenge, nailed him with a 123-count indictment that was eventually whittled down to a single charge. Morris, stressed out and suicidal, pled guilty, against the urging of his loved ones; expecting a slap on the wrist, he got one to four years, and, later, was repeatedly denied parole.

Andrew Cuomo a vindictive, law-bending score-settler? You don't say. Whatever the merits of Morris' case, an Off Broadway musical is an odd vehicle for rehabilitation. Even Gabriel Barre's inventive production and a slick design package can't prevent A Turtle on a Fence Post from consistently flaunting its amateur status. Plausible or not, Morris weighs down his arguments with digressions that distract and production numbers that function as narrative roadblocks.

The show quickly sketches in Morris' type A personality -- he is amusingly glimpsed as a child, engrossed in a copy of Sun Tzu's The Art of War -- whose political skills are in high demand until he is arrested. Landing in the slammer, Hank (as he is known in the script) struggles to accept the injustice foisted upon him. But, just as one should never defend oneself in a court of law, if you must pen an autobiographical musical, an experienced librettist is a must; otherwise, you'll find yourself weighed down by rookie errors.

For example, we are told, repeatedly, that Hank deflects his feelings with humor, that he is constantly writing down comic bits for later use. Yet the script is loaded with wilted witticisms along these lines: "I would've crapped my pants, but I was scared shitless." Or this one, spoken to a fellow prisoner about to be sprung: "I'm consumed with penal envy." With gags like that, one assumes he was sentenced to hard time in the Catskills.

Interestingly, Hank forms a wary friendship with Z (the excellent David Aron Damane), a drug dealer who is not to be messed with. Later, when Z has been freed, he tells Hank in a letter, "You showed me your values and morals, things I admired but overlooked in life." Actually, we see Z taking the fall for Hank over a contraband cellphone, a gallant gesture that lands Z in solitary confinement while the cowardly Hank keeps his mouth shut. So much for values and morals.

Morris has hired a promising young songwriting team, consisting of Austin Nuckols (music) and Lily Dwoskin (lyrics), who provide Leslie with an attractive ballad, "How Can I Help You?" along with one or two others. But the score is top-heavy with numbers that do little to move the story forward. These include "Sliver of Hope," delivered by Hank's own personal Abyss, a kind of caped crusader of depression who is Morris' unhappiest invention; "Kangaroo Court," which, inexplicably recaps the show's plot before landing Hank in solitary for reasons unknown; and the inevitable "Jewish Guilt," sung by Hank to his ailing mother. It seems criminal to hire Damane only to squander his soaring voice on Z's weakish numbers. And when Cuomo finally shows up -- to deliver the eleven o'clock number, natch -- the song, "New York Tough" is a total letdown, lacking the necessary brimstone.

Barre's staging is filled with clever story-theatre ideas, including an actor standing in for an ATM and another as a basketball hoop, gleefully frustrating anyone who tries to score; there's an especially graceful moment when Hank propose to Leslie while on a picnic; their blanket immediately rises up and becomes the chuppah at their wedding. Less successful is Kenny Ingram's choreography, most notably a bizarre prison dance break that resembles something from Stomp. The cast does what it can with often shaky material: Aside from the gifted Damane and Loprest, that reliable pro Joanna Glushak delivers Hank's stereotyped Jewish mother with gusto. As Hank, Garth Kravitz is tasked with being the uncharismatic center of the action, a self-involved nerd with an addiction to bad jokes.

Rarely does a less-than-professional piece get such a glossy, accomplished production design. Walt Spangler's multitiered comedy club set, complete with bar and mannequin patrons, is attractive and appropriate, with a ground plan that provides many playing areas. Yael Lubetzky's lighting uses a variety of cunningly placed units that cause the set to glow from within. Stefania Bulbarella's amusing and informative projections include scandal-mongering headlines, news reports, an electoral map of New York State, and a montage of the world's current ills, including fires, homelessness, and COVID. Vanessa Leuck's costumes effectively limn characters from all walks of life. The sound design, by Twi McCallum and Rachel Kolb, is admirably clear; the effects include an powerful evocation of Superstorm Sandy.

Given the weakness of A Turtle on a Fence Post, the former governor is probably justified in feeling that this too shall pass. Surely, Morris' case -- which, on the face of it, would seem to merit a closer look -- would be made better in a book or documentary film. As it is, he is constantly distracted by the need to provide musical theatre moments, many of which are off topic. Indeed, Cuomo recedes from the action for long periods; the show's true subject is Hank coming to terms with his own self-involvement. Based on what we see, I'd say the struggle is not yet over. --David Barbour

(15 November 2021)

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