Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Kernel of Sanity


By Kermit Frazier. Directed by Petronia Paley. The New Federal Theatre at Abrons Arts Center. (CLOSED)

Reviews for this production of Kermit Frazier's three-hander about two actors reuniting after many years start at the top with the Times' respectful B+ and drop off pretty quickly after that. Though some critics find things to admire in Frazier's gonzo-like riffs on the counterculture and on roleplaying, complaints center on some befuddling or disappointing elements of Frazier's script, on what some feel is Petronia Paley's uninspired direction, and on a cast that exudes little chemistry. Almost all single out Chaz Rueben as the one actor who fares reasonably well.

The New York Times B+
(Rachel Saltz) Starts off shakily, but with the arrival of Roger, whose behavior is deliberate but strange, it takes off. Why has he come? What draws him to Frank? Rita wonders if he and Frank were lovers. Is that why Frank has never talked about him? And why does he keep that shoulder bag so close? The director, Petronia Paley, and the excellent cast draw you in, lending the play’s middle section a tense ambiguity. “Kernel of Sanity” has an unsatisfying ending, at once too pat and too abstract. And you keep waiting for the 1970s setting to yield some insights about character or race...Disaffected and disenchanted, Frank, Roger and Rita could easily inhabit the here and now. The play would only gain in force. B
(James Comtois) Kermit Frazier plays with ideas of race relations, how heroes often have feet of clay, and the need people have for validation...The climactic scene is tonally all over the map...and a bit muddled. It touches on racial tensions...Even as I think now about the show, I'm still not 100% sure what the point of Roger's visit was...Director Petronia Paley does a fine job with the play, although she makes some choices I found a little confusing. Although this is a play that seems to be very rooted in the real world, it seems as though there are a few scenes that deal with surrealism or breaking the fourth wall. But I don't really know if that's what was going on...However, I enjoyed watching these three very disparate people interact through the course of the 90 minutes that the play progresses. This is also due to the solid acting in this piece...At its core is a nice, low-key drama about people who protect themselves from the world through self-delusion, and resort to blaming others for their lot in life.

Village Voice B-
(Christopher Grobe) Joel Nagle (as Frank) soars, Shepard-style, in the play's opening rant against a coastal culture of "famous neurotics," and Chaz Reuben often swells with Baraka-like power as Roger. But director Petronia Paley has trouble keeping these embers glowing. Basic writerly problems stand in her way: Frank's girlfriend, Rita, is a complete nonentity and third wheel. Frazier spends the first half of this New Federal Theatre show awkwardly ushering characters on-and offstage to ensure an orderly sequence of two-person scenes. Why not ditch Rita and embrace the intensity of a true two-hander?

Theatermania C
(Andy Propst) Strained...As Sanity evolves, it becomes clear that Frazier wants to extend beyond the theatrical by attempting to create a piece that echoes Thomas Pynchon's sometimes trippy and hallucinogenic prose. Unfortunately, both the script and Petronia Paley's prosaic direction never completely reach the heights of this novelist's work. As a result, the play's fantasy sequences -- such as one extremely intimate moment that Roger shares with Rita -- unfold awkwardly and confusingly...Reuben proves to be the most felicitous at navigating the twists and turns of the script. When Roger first appears, he seems like one of the most laid-back guys one might ever meet, but as the piece progresses, Reuben's portrayal grows in intensity. By the end of the play, his ability to summon the rage that Roger has carried for most of his life is searing...Unfortunately, Nagle's portrayal of Frank, the linchpin of this piece, is almost too uniformly manic.

Time Out NY D
(Pamela Newton) A poor man's Sam Shepard: all of the gloom and none of the insight. One of the myriad big ideas here is that we are all actors in dramas of our own creation, and playwright Frazier has some fun with the power of pretense. But the cast is not skilled enough to navigate this metatheatrical labyrinth, and the line increasingly blurs between the playacting of the characters and the equally underdeveloped real acting of the actors. Reuben's tortured Roger rings particularly false, the more so as his grip on reality loosens. When the inevitable gun finally appears, the suspense is so thin you could spread it with a butter knife. The only consolation is that, according to the cliché, the firearm means the gig is almost up.

Backstage F+
(Mark Peikert) The three characters in Kermit Frazier's Kernel of Sanity sure love to talk...Unfortunately, not a single moment rings true. Frazier's play is merely a collection of outlandish dramatic moments between characters who go unpunished for their bad behavior. When Roger finally reveals his absurd reason for tracking Frank down after four years, there's a noticeable lack of tension. As Frazier never brings his characters face to face with their actions, there's no reason to believe that any of them will begin paying the price for their selfishness. Among the actors, Reuben fares best as sociopath Roger, whose emotional imbalances partially excuse the ludicrous dialogue with which all three characters are saddled...Nagle and James do the best they can in roles that manage to be simultaneously over the top and underwritten — though James adopts and discards a Southern accent at whim — but there's not a kernel of emotional honesty in Kernel of Sanity.

Variety F
(Marilyn Stasio) An egotistical rant by blowhard scribe Kermit Frazier...Shapeless form is the giveaway that there's no play here, just a platform for the raving of two characters with a load of pent-up grievances...Nagle, a shameless fire-breather under Petronia Paley's permissive helming, starts him off at such a high pitch, Frank is too creepy and scary to appeal to anyone not on the same meds...Roger Peterson (Chaz Reuben), the young black actor who once looked up to Frank as a role model, seems to bring some sanity into the house when he drops in on his way to a film job...Since there's no real conflict or action involved in this plotless drama, all this dancing around is resolved in the final reveals, which turn out to be exactly what you'd expect from a couple of guys who traveled in the same circles but never really knew one another.

The New York Times B+ 11; B 10; Village Voice B- 9; Theatermania C 7; TONY D 4; Backstage F+ 2; Variety F 1; 42/7=6 (C-)

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