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Theatre in Review: Inner Voices (Premieres/TBG Theatre)

Nancy Anderson. Photo Carol Rosegg

If you need any further proof that musical theatre is in fine fettle these days, try a visit to Inner Voices. This trio of solo musicals brings together new and veteran talents to tackle conventional material, resulting in three distinctive, innovative short works; they also provide a showcase for three first-rate performers.

The first, and arguably the weakest, of the three, "Just One 'Q'," is a rather contrived piece of Southern Gothic comic melodrama about the long-running animus between a pair of aging Arkansas belles, as told by the nursing home attendant who acts as their informal referee. It is 1961, and Benny, the orderly, tends to Bertha under the watchful eye of his boss, Julynne. Many years earlier, Bertha lost her husband, Mister Greene Cotton, to the much younger Julynne. Now he is dead, and in a real Flannery O'Connor touch, both ladies are vying for dibs on the empty spot in his grave. They hash out the past over a game of Scrabble; the big revelation has to do with the blow, with a hot iron, delivered to Mister Greene Cotton by an outraged Bertha. To give you a sense of the script's rather peculiar distance from the characters, a moment of honest tenderness between them is compared to monkeys grooming each other.

At times, the piece seems to be straining for outrageous comedy, and sometimes it is unclear which character is speaking, but Ellen Fitzhugh, an old Broadway hand, provides polished lyrics that capture the simple world inhabited by two ladies who have both taken it on the chin from life. Benny, looking over the rest home, sings, "I got keys t' all these rooms/But none t' unlock these hearts/Any love between 'em is tucked away and hid/Stubborn 'n tight as a Mason jar lid." Ted Shen's music is attractive throughout, kicking up a rumpus when Bertha and Julynne go at it, and striking deeper, more melancholy notes as the sad facts of the past come to light. T. Oliver Reid's heroic singing is of enormous value here; he is someone we should be seeing more often. Brad Rouse's direction keeps a lively pace.

The second piece, "The Pen," would be notable if only for showcasing the talents of the divine, and highly underrated, Nancy Anderson. A petite blonde with a cherubic face and a little-girl speaking voice, she constantly surprises with her demonic energy, whether delivering a stunning high note or a withering wisecrack. Here she is Laura, a nicely put-together human resources assistant, dressed in pencil skirt, blouse, and cardigan -- the carefully observed costumes are by M. Meriwether Snipes -- and on her way to work. She's ready to go, but she can't find her keys. Rooting around in her purse, she discovers a purple pen. Dropping it, she wails, "I don't own a purple pen!"

What follows is a tense, funny, and oddly moving study of one woman's struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Without making fun of Laura or demeaning her illness, Anderson finds honest laughter in her predicament, whether frantically spraying her purse with Lysol, desperately trying to recall when the offending item -- it has teeth marks! -- came into her possession, or unrolling epic lengths of paper towels with which to sanitize the nearest available surface. Facing the prospect of yet another late arrival at work -- her job may be on the line -- she envisions taking down her boss in a furious, hilarious comic rant titled "Coffee Bitch." The subsequent numbers reveal deeper layers of feeling regarding the mother she lost while still a toddler, her deep attachment to her father and the lurking feeling that she let him down when he needed her most, and the realization, after his death, that she "had no roots," leaving her clinging to a job she doesn't particularly care for, watching colleagues come and go, moving on to happier lives. And then there's the nagging question: Will Laura make it out the door? Or will she remain at home for the day, once again a prisoner of her fears?

Anderson pulls off the remarkable feat of spoofing the character while simultaneously excavating her broken heart; tunneling deep into Laura's obsessions, she makes us feel what it is like to be caught inside their grip. ("But while I pass the sink, why not/Make sure there is single drip/Cuz once I give that 'I' the dot/I'll cross my 'T' and get a grip/And grab my purse and get away/Without a backward look again/Why did I ever even stay/Over a silly purple pen?/Why did I ever even care where else it's been?") Margot Bordelon's direction helps to maintain the balance between laughter and loss. Dan Collins (lyrics) and Julianne Wick Davis (music), who last season impressed with Southern Comfort at the Public Theater, provide a score that is, by turns, antic, driving, and possessed of a deep sadness.

The most up-to-date offering is The Booty Call, in which Michael Thurber, playing a composer named Gabe, acts as his own orchestra and chorus. Gabe is working on an album, sampling various beats and vocal hooks that he blends into his latest composition. While he works, he gets a phone message from Sam, the girl he has been dating, inviting him over for dinner and, as the tone of her voice makes clear, something more. Most 28-year-olds would be thrilled, but Gabe is oddly ambivalent; as The Booty Call reveals, Gabe isn't the sleep-around type, and a couple of experiences -- with a married high school friend and a pickup in a club -- have both ended, so to speak, at half-mast. The rest of the action gently, but thoroughly, unpacks the disappointments that have left him feeling so ambivalent about getting involved with a young woman who, on the face of it, seems perfect for him.

Blending conversational lyrics with a hip-hop twist that Lin-Manuel Miranda might admire and an engaging jazz-soul mix, The Booty Call turns what might seem like a trivial social problem into what might very well be a crossroads of sorts for Gabe. The lyrics provide a mordant running commentary on a dating scene populated by poseurs and pickups: "I went to the bar, stood there alone/All the other guys were buried on their phones/It's the 'I'm so busy' charade/'I just came here to work, bro, I'm not trying to get laid'/Bro, who comes here to write emails?!/We all know you want to get attention from females/Yet somehow it works, they're playing the game/And I'm just standing here alone, looking lame." Thurber, who composed, and who wrote the lyrics with Saheem Ali (who also directed), makes Gabe into an appealingly lost soul; he also demonstrates his mastery of keyboards, guitar, and, especially, the bass, which provides an alluring undercurrent for some of his most tormented self-examinations.

In other respects, the production is just what is needed to support all three plays. Reid Thompson's set provides just enough detail and no more, and Oliver Wason's lighting creates a distinctive atmosphere for each scene. The TBG Theatre is not known for its felicitous acoustics, but Walter Trarbach's sound design helps to increase the level of intelligibility.

Seeing a program like Inner Voices is enjoyable on its own terms, and it's also fun to experience so many new and underused talents. I'd say all of them are going places; checking them out now will give you bragging rights later on. You'll be able to say you knew them when. -- David Barbour

(13 October 2016)

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