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Critical Darling

It is remarkable how many classic elements of farce are in Barry Levey's emotional new drama Critical Darling: pseudo-bohemian artistes, closeted gay people, ultimatums, societal scandal, and bad music, to name but a few. And indeed, there are plenty of laughs in Critical Darling, but despite the farcical nature of the premise, the story is heartbreakingly poignant and dramatic.

Set in the New Mexico desert in the days just before World War Two, the play follows a group of three British artists who have emigrated to the States to re-start their careers. Evie is a moderately respectable poet who has long carried an unrequited torch for Frank, a fellow poet who cannot bear to show his work to anyone. Frank's truest friend and confidante is Gerald, with whom he shares stories of his illicit escapades with young men. The trio is rattled by the arrival of young Daniel Weiland, a Jewish Czech composer whose ideas are far ahead of his time: he believes that men are capable of truly loving each other romantically, not merely enjoying clandestine one-night-stands. As the four become enmeshed in a tangled web of lies, love, sex, and the law, their hearts and souls are put to a terrible test.

By setting the play just before one of the most horrific genocides in history, and just before Dr. Kinsey published his famous report on human sexuality, Levy makes a not-very-subtle but still important statement about both the willful and unintentional ignorance that can lead to broken hearts at best, and millions of deaths at worst. These characters are very much products of their generations and upbringing: Evie, Gerald, and Frank, all formerly upper-class Brits, have firmly set beliefs about gender roles and ethnic and economic backgrounds, while younger Daniel is more open-minded. Aware of himself and of the world, Daniel is capable not only of seeing what is truly happening around him, but what will happen down the line, both for good and bad. He becomes a sort of Cassandra, announcing a future that we know will come, and that the characters don't want to believe in.

Andrew Polk, as Gerald, owns every minute he is on the stage, with his dry delivery and scathing wit. Noel Coward must be smiling proudly somewhere whenever Mr. Polk delivers Gerald's lines. Mark Jacoby, as the object of both Evie and Daniel's affections, is properly restrained and uptight, giving his character a heartbreaking conflict between his mind and his heart. Elizabeth Hess, as the perpetually suffering yet somehow hopeful Evie is devastating in her intensity, perfectly capturing the pain of a woman who has lost everyone she has ever loved. And Daniel London, as young Daniel Weiland, is truly moving in a role that's written less as a character and more as a philosophical mouthpiece. Ian Morgan's direction lets the emotion build gradually to a wonderful intensity, but always keeping an eye on the wit and humor that hide the pain beneath the surface. Walking such a fine line between comedy and drama (indeed, tragedy) is no small feat, and Levey and Morgan's combined skills do the job admirably.

The New Group (naked) is a new offshoot of the group that brought Broadway Avenue Q, dedicated to producing new works with little money. This intimate, intelligent, and genuinely funny new work suggests great things to come from the company, and from all involved.

Critical Darling runs until March 5 at the Lion Theatre on Theatre Row (410 W. 42nd Street), Wednesday through Saturday at 8 and Saturday at 2. Tickets are $15, and can be purchased through Ticket Central at 212-279-4200, or www.ticketcentral.com


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Jena Tesse Fox is a lifelong theatre addict who has worked as an actress, a singer, a playwright, a director, a lyricist, a librettist, and (read more...)