Friday, December 5, 2008

Improbable Frequency


Book and lyrics by Arthur Riordan. Music by Bell Helicopter. Dir. Lynne Parker. Rough Magic Theatre Company at 59E59. (CLOSED)

This import from Ireland's Rough Magic Theatre Company has some critics abuzz with amusement with, and some just tuckered out by, its brisk pace and nonstop rhymed puns as it tells the apocryphal real-life tale of a poet, a physicist, and a spot of spying during WWII. Reviewers went crazy with the comparisons: Stoppard, Monty Python, Brecht/Weill, the current Broadway production of The 39 Steps, and, in the most negative review so far, from the Daily News' Joe Dziemianowicz, Doctor Who. (Hey—don't diss the Time Lord, man.)

Backstage A+
(Gwen Orel) Improbable Frequency is absolute entertainment. Although it's nominally about code-cracking in neutral Ireland in 1941, it's a silly theatrical romp. How delicious, in these days of multimedia amazements and monologue rants, to feel needed in the audience. Ahhhh.

Variety A
(Steven Suskin) One-half Travesties, one-third The Threepenny Opera and one-quarter Get Smart. If that all doesn't quite add up, no matter. Arthur Riordan's wild and fanciful musical is something like an intellectual 39 Steps, with meat on its bones and a surfeit of plot in the pot...Parker's staging is a key component to the proceedings' success. But it's clearly Riordan who's on display, with a linguistic tapestry of wit, whimsy and bad puns.

Associated Press A
(Jennifer Farrar) Six talented Irish actors sing and dance their way through this whimsical fantasy, energetically portraying spies and counterspies. Riordan's puns and clever lines pour endlessly forth, mostly in rhyme...A live band, led by Morgan Cooke, adds to the fun, as the company races through more than 30 catchy numbers.

Bloomberg News A
(John Simon) A funny vest-pocket musical...Arthur Riordan (clever book and lyrics) and Connor Kelly and Sam Park calling themselves Bell Helicopter (pleasant music) create inspired zaniness. Not only the lyrics but also some spoken dialogue is in rhymed verse, something almost unheard of onstage since Shakespeare’s youthful efforts. A devilishly apt cast of six, under Lynn Parker’s brisk direction, handles these and other characters with maniacal expertise.

The New York Times B
(Charles Isherwood) You don’t need to be familiar with Schrödinger, or his cat, or the poet John Betjeman (another character), or his teddy bear, to find plenty of fun in this madcap musical caper, with a dazzling rhymed book and lyrics by Arthur Riordan and jaunty music-hall tunes by Bell Helicopter...The result is a bit like early Stoppard crossed with a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. Most unexpected is how consistently this strange concoction entertains, although it may quickly exhaust audiences resistant to the Anglo-Irish brand of silliness it trades in. Peter Hanly is among the most consistent delights in the central role.

Time Out NY B
(Andy Propst) The fiendishly clever, blithely loony musical Improbable Frequency plunges headlong into World War II espionage and politics in ways that might make even Tom Stoppard arch an eyebrow...Director Lynne Parker’s buoyant staging flags occasionally, but composer Bell Helicopter’s intriguing blend of period swing and indie rock consistently engages...Like a diabolical crossword, Improbable Frequency frustrates and maddens even as it pleases.

CurtainUp B
(Paulanne Simmons) Improbable Frequency will not appeal to all theatergoers, despite its catchy tunes (derived from English music halls and American vaudeville) and witty lyrics. Overly circuitous plotting, endless puns and double entendres have a tendency to become tiresome, even with the most inspired acting and direction. And the rhymed dialogue that sometimes pays more attention to style than content can become quite an effort to follow...For those who are willing to make a concentrated effort and stretch their imagination, it will most probably be quite rewarding.

NY Post B-
(Frank Scheck) This endlessly verbose musical plays like Tom Stoppard crossed with the Marx Brothers, with a heavy dose of Noel Coward...There's plenty of verbal cleverness on display in this Irish import - indeed, too much...The six-person cast - under Lynne Parker's direction - couldn't be better. But it all goes on too long. Before Improbable Frequency ends, you'll want to turn the dial.

The Daily News C+
(Joe Dziemianowicz) A veritable tossed salad of facts and figures pulled from the past, pure fantasy and some very weird science...On the plus side, I loved the witty wordplay, puns and linguistic brainteasers packed into the frothy period-perfect songs and story...On the minus side, I hated that after intermission, the clever hijinks collapse into unfunny, hi-and-dry-jinks that resemble a dopier version of Doctor Who. Despite such faltering, the cast of six constantly shines under Lynne Parker's direction.

Show Showdown C
(Patrick Lee) On paper, I ought to love it--it's like nothing else out there, it marches with integrity to its own drum, and it certainly isn't stupid. (In fact the script is on fire with clever wordplay; it's what held my interest through the first act.) The patter-rich music is entertaining and flavorful...and there's nothing to complain loudly about as far as the ensemble goes...And yet after about an hour I had had quite enough.

Backstage A+ 14; Variety A 13; Associated Press A 13; Bloomberg A 13; The New York Times B 10; TONY B 10; CurtainUp B 10; NY Post B- 9; The Daily News C+ 8; Show Showdown C+ 8; TOTAL: 108/10=10.8 (B+)

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