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Theatre in Review: The Mushroom Cure (Theatre 80)/Cruel Intentions (Le Poisson Rouge)

Top: Adam Strauss. Photo: David Allen. Bottom: Lauren Zakrin, Carrie St. Louis. Photo: Jenny Anderson.

I rang out 2017 with a couple of oddball novelty attractions, either of which might amuse you but neither of which should be considered mandatory viewing. The Mushroom Cure, a solo show starring the stand-up comedian Adam Strauss, is, apparently, the true-life tale of how he attempted to cure his debilitating bouts of obsessive-compulsive disorder by taking self-prescribed doses of psychedelic mushrooms. Strauss accurately recounts the horrors of, say, taking twenty-two minutes to choose a shirt -- such vexing decisions causing him to be perpetually late to the comedy club where he performs -- or struggling to decide whether he should walk down the shady or the sunny side of the street. Any number of therapies and drug cocktails failed to work, and he takes a dim view of the twelve-step program devoted to those suffering from OCD, which he occasionally drops in on.

Things look fairly hopeless until he meets a winsome psychology student who agrees with his idea that mushrooms might be the cure-all for his symptoms. But which mushrooms and how many? The goal, we are told, is a "plus-four" experience, which, he believes, will take him to a higher level of consciousness and disperse his anxieties. The search for the right mushrooms (which includes trolling the Internet for suppliers) leads to some farcical complications, including a spectacular overdose -- of a white powder, mysteriously mailed to him from somewhere in China -- that, in addition to landing him in the hospital, gives him something of a bad name with the Martha's Vineyard constabulary, who are forced to intervene when he starts to freak out.

In truth, there is very little in The Mushroom Cure that would upset the Food and Drug Administration, and one feels sure that nobody in the audience is likely to repeat Strauss' reckless, and ultimately unsuccessful, experience. There are some colorful only-in-New York vignettes about his bellicose pot dealer and a therapist whose "office" is a bench in Union Square Park. He is an affable performer and, as he makes clear, his symptoms begin to fade only when he takes on the hard work of facing them head-on. (Although he doesn't quite say so, they appear to be linked to anguish over a broken romance.) Overall, however, he works a little too hard in attempting to make a comedy out of his experiences, and his relationship with that graduate student who becomes his partner in pharmaceutical crime isn't always believable. The Mushroom Cure is a mildly amusing hour and a half, but kids -- please -- don't try this at home!

Cruel Intentions is a new musical based on the film of the same name, itself based on Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the novel by Pierre-Ambroise Choderlos de Laclos, which has been the source material for countless stage and film adaptations. In this version, Valmont and Merteuil, those ice-cold sophisticates, are stepsiblings who amuse themselves by seducing and abandoning virtually the entire student body at their Upper East Side prep school. As in the original, the plot turns on a bet that Valmont won't be able to bed an innocent, in this case Annette, a new enrollee who has already published an article in a national magazine extolling the idea of saving oneself for one's wedding night. What seems to be a simple case of kiss-and-run gets complicated when Valmont begins to have real feelings for Annette. If you have seen any version of this story, you know what happens next. The only invention of the musical's book -- by Jordan Ross, Lindsey Rosin, and Roger Kumble, based on Kumble's screenplay -- is the addition of a gay subplot, and it's a real head-scratcher. For reasons far too complicated to go into here, Valmont enlists Blaine, a gay student, in a plan to entrap Greg, a closeted football star. The plan works, but the romance flourishes, despite the fact that Blaine has subjected his newfound boyfriend to humiliating exposure and blackmail. I guess love really does mean never having to say you're sorry.

This is a good time to note that Cruel Intentions is a jukebox musical, making use of numerous '90s pop hits. As is usually the case, most of the songs are only distantly related to the action onstage; here, when someone bursts into, say, "I Want It That Way" or "Losing My Religion" -- the score is nothing if not eclectic -- the song's original contexts (and singers) are impossible to forget, making their use seem doubly absurd. Whether the authors intended for their teen melodrama to be taken seriously -- I strongly suspect not -- each song cue prompts a laugh from the largely millennial audience.

Cruel Intentions is junk, but everybody involved seems to be in on the joke, and the cast is loaded with young talents who are likely to turn up under more respectable circumstances. Constantine Rousouli's good looks and stage presence are put to effective use as Valmont, as is his powerful singing voice. He also has a way of simultaneously delivering and disowning lines like "I'm sick of sleeping with these insipid Manhattan debutantes," a skill that proves crucial. He has a fine match in the Merteuil of Lauren Zakrin, who oozes evil from every pore. (I especially enjoyed the way she daintily opens the cross she wears around her neck to take a sniff of cocaine.) Her rendition of the Garbage hit "I Only Like It When It Rains" is a real attention-getter. The others are fine as well, especially Matthew Griffin as a music student who gets caught in the sexual crossfire. God only knows what Patricia Richardson is doing presiding over these turgid teen intrigues, but she looks great and cracks wise with élan as the musical's sole adult figure.

Rosin's direction ensures a fast pace, lest anyone have a minute to think about the overall silliness of what they're seeing. The program credits James Kolditz with "lighting direction" rather than design; suffice to say that much of the show is cued like a concert, with plenty of blinder cues. The sound design, by Robert Bradley, is often rather muddy, making the lyrics hard to make out. Then again, since they are often not germane to the action, the point is moot. If I thought anyone involved in Cruel Intentions meant it, I would be offended; as a kind of party game for a young audience interested in having a few drinks and hearing dynamic covers of pop hits from their salad days, I suppose it works. Funnily enough, if you want a serious musical these days, you have to head for Broadway. -- David Barbour

(2 January 2018)

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