Review: “Tall Skinny Cruel Cruel Boys” by Caroline V. McGraw. Directed by Jane Nichols. With Hannah Victoria Franklin, Jay Myers, Billy Gleeson, Scott Ward Abernethy, Samie Spring Detzer, Kate Kraay. Now through June 24, 2013 at Washington Ensemble Theatre.
Normally, I try and squeeze in the bloody title of the play I’m reviewing into the header as a courtesy to people actively SEARCHING for reviews of that play but since I wasn’t very impressed by Washington Ensemble Theatre’s current production of “Tall Skinny Cruel Cruel Boys” I decided to promote its lead actress, Hannah Victoria Franklin and plead for someone to find her a big juicy role to portray in a play worth producing. She’s a ridiculously gifted actress though apparently tough to cast…she’s a big tall cool glass of gin in a town that leans toward milky cups of coffee. Ms Franklin spent last summer in the Intiman company (where she was under utilized) and she pops up in an indy production here and there, but most of her work is confined to WET, the tiny, edgy theater company where she is a resident ensemble member and seen most memorably as a teddy bear skirted queen in “RoboPop!” and a tragically doomed adulteress in “Sextet”. When she is given strong material, HVF can soar to the heights of thespian heaven, but she is frequently wasted in dull and turgid material…like the current “Tall Skinny…”
But, I think Ms Franklin and the rest of the WET ensemble have to take responsibility for the quality of the material they choose to stage. Part of the problem might be that WET is apparently run like a hippie commune…they have FOUR co-artistic directors, including Ms Franklin (who is also the Managing Director), which is about three too many…in my opinion. (Too many chefs….etc) It also doesn’t help that WET has a tendency to have themes for their seasons…we’ve suffered through the “Adults Playing Children” Season and “People Turning Into Animals” Season (those actually overlapped) and apparently this year it’s “Fairy Tale/Boogey Man/Monsters” Season. They started out the year with “The Fairy Tale Lives of Russian Girls” and their previous show was the awful “Smudge” about a couple who give birth to a ….smudge. And, now, with “Tall Skinny…” they end their year with a play about a drunk slutty clown with a gambling addiction…and a monster living under her bed.
Actually, “Tall Skinny Cruel Cruel Boys” does SOUND promising; they had me with “drunk slutty clown”, but Caroline V. McGraw’s script never does much of anything to fulfill that promise. It just lurches along from scene to scene with painfully awkward transitions. Ms Franklin plays Brandy, the drunk slutty clown who divides her time between drinking, popping off to Atlantic City to gamble, and seducing the most inappropriate people available…the brothers and fathers of the children she’s hired to entertain. Currently, Brandy is busy sleeping with a hunky 16 year old and navigating the advances from a hunky British DILF while coping with the fact there seems to be a hunky monster living under her bed who wants to drag her off to be his daemon bride. Meanwhile, she’s tentatively bonding with one of her mother clients and trying to establish a professional partnership with another “children’s entertainer” while dealing with the ire of the 16 year old boy’s jilted girlfriend. There’s also clowning and puppets…the children are portrayed by dolls that apparently escaped the Island of Misfit Toys.
For having a number of characters and plot lines, “Tall Skinny…” is a very long hour and a half. None of the through lines are very thoroughly explored and we don’t really know why Brandy is such a mess other than the fact she seems attracted to men and situations that aren’t good for her. The script is weak and Jane Nichols’ direction isn’t able to overcome those structural weaknesses; the transitions are very rough and there doesn’t seem to be any motivation for anything happening on stage. The clowning sequences are painful to sit through and the promised “puppet action” consists of manipulating a couple of dolls and the creepy claw of the under the bed monster…which WAS scary the first time it happened, but that sense of dread was rather quickly lost.
“Tall Skinny…” is also a waste of the talents of the other actors beside Ms Franklin, who frankly isn’t given much to do except be a mess. Jay Myers was nicely understated as the boy in love/lust with Brandy, though there isn’t enough of an age gap between the two actors to make it very convincing. Mr. Myers has a bit of a baby face but the body of a 24 year old and Ms Franklin isn’t that much older…it wasn’t particularly shocking. Billy Gleeson was appropriately swarmy as the British DILF putting the moves on Brandy but more effective as the menacing and powerful Monster Under The Bed. And, Scott Ward Abernethy was charming as the nerdy fellow entertainer; he had a sweetly wistful chemistry with Ms Franklin.
As for the other two women in the cast, Kate Kraay was fine as the oddly obtuse Nina, though it was never quite clear why she was seeking out friendship with a mess like Brandy. And, Samie Spring Detzer was channeling Buffy the Vampire Slayer grrrrrl power as the jilted teen girlfriend, in a role that was underwritten but still appealing.
Design and tech wise, the show was what you expect from a WET production…sharply and cleverly designed and executed on a tiny budget with standouts being Pete Rush’s tented set, recalling a child’s bedroom, and some sharp sound design and effects from Andrew Samora. SEVERAL other theater companies in town could take lessons from WET on how to design/execute on a Grocery Outlet budget.
As for WET, there are changes for the 10 year old company coming soon…next year, they’ll move into their new home as one of the three theatrical tenants of the under construction 12th Avenue Arts complex. They’re also announcing their 2013/14 season in a few weeks. I’m hoping that the promise of a new home will energize the company to find some brilliant new material to stage or create.
Or, just give in to the inevitable and make me happy by doing “RoboPop 2: The Rise of the ElectraBoogaloo Machines”
PS: If you want to see more amazing photos of Hannah Victoria Franklin, go check out photographer LaRae Lobdell’s webiste, PhotoSister.