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Theatre in Review: One Woman Show (Greenwich House Theater)

Liz Kingsman. Photo: Joan Marcus

Are you tired of earnest solo shows? The sort of piece in which a terribly serious actor relates his/her/their downward slide, inevitably caused by some terrible trauma that, ultimately, must be faced, cuing plenty of tears and a hopeful, uplifting finale? Aren't you just a little bit fed up with such gratuitous emotional gymnastics? Liz Kingsman certainly is, so much so that she practically takes a crowbar to the entire genre in her ingenious and often hilarious entertainment. You may never again be able to experience such evenings without getting giggle fits.

The premise: We are, ostensibly, at Greenwich House to see a performance of something called Wildfowl, which, we are told, is being videotaped for television tonight. (This is established in an amusing prologue centering around a soundcheck session that highlights Kingsman's skill at throwing away lines to highly comic effect.) After this passive-aggressive tangle between star and stage management, we're off into the surreal daily life of our heroine -- let's call her "Liz" -- who works in marketing at a not-for-profit association called the Wildfowl Wetlands Trust -- a job that mostly consists of posting cute animal videos to the Internet. A self-described "lovable trainwreck," "Liz" pursues two equally unpromising romances, with Phil, mysteriously described as "an 8'9" Adonis," and Jared, a researcher, whose bizarre notions about dating, derived from his favorite avian species, involve a single night of love per year, followed by a communication-free, twelve-month-long separation.

Where others might detect an assortment of red flags, "Liz" sees no reason not to plow ahead with these dubious romantic prospects. After all, she notes, she'd "been single for practically that whole day." She delivers this and other remarks with such nonchalance that it takes the audience an extra half-beat to catch up. (For example, stumbling out of bed, feeling the worse for wear, she wonders, "What was in that bottle of vodka?") At moments like these, "Liz" seems a close relation to the hard-partying heroine of Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Fleabag. In contrast, however, the humor in One Woman Show has a wild, surreal edge. Kingsman is hit by a car, but shows up at the office anyway, bleeding and marked by tire tracks. "I don't really feel anything," she says meaningfully, telegraphing her theme. When she visits a revolving restaurant, it turns vertically, causing her drink to fall off the table. And there's her buddy-buddy texting relationship with -- wait for it -- tennis star Novak Djokovic.

At the same time, Kingsman earns big laughs with her calculated and transparently false attempts at calling up authentic emotions. Trying to look vulnerable, she refers, with a catch in her voice, to "something from my past." Listening to Jared talk about his devotion to birds, her feigned interest, consisting of nodding and a blank-eyed stare, will fool no one. And when she gets called on the carpet at work, for an office sexual encounter caught on video, it cues a gasp-inducing revelation about her mental state that, instead of invoking sympathy, sends waves of shocked laughter through the auditorium.

At the same time, Kingsman's performance must endure a series of interruptions and technical glitches related to the "taping," which interfere with her all-too-obviously engineered moments of vulnerability. She forges ahead with her performance, growing steelier by the minute. I won't tell what happens except to note that, following a staggeringly incompetent act involving major environmental destruction, "Liz" soothes herself with the conclusion, "I guess I am enough," a cliché so perfectly timed that it induces peals of hilarity. Her equally brazen decision to get naked sets up a gag that more than justifies Chloe Lamford's production design credit.

One Woman Show may drag, ever so slightly, in its middle third, as "Liz" works out the details of her character's romantic triangle, but the piece recovers in time for a knockout of a conclusion. Clearly, Kingman is a unique comic voice -- intelligent, casually cutting, and totally assured in her delivery. And her impatience with theatrical pieties is a breath of fresh air. Daniel Carter-Brennan's amusing lighting includes an attention sequence in which, trying to fix a cue, the entire design goes haywire. Max Perryment's sound design allows Kingsman to interact fluidly with the voices of Jared and her recalcitrant stage manager. This is the second piece I've seen in the last week -- the other is Alex Edelman's Just for Us -- directed by Adam Brace, who died in April; it's safe to say we lost a major talent.

In any case, One Woman Show is a debut of note, from an artist you are going to be hearing from again. You're right, Liz: I guess you're enough -- uproariously so. --David Barbour

(10 July 2023)

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