by: Joshua Rose
What makes good art? Who makes good art? Do the artist’s personal flaws take away from or add to their art? How do you decide to whom you distribute twenty-thousand dollars? While the title is The Most Deserving, this play hilariously shows us that factor rarely actually matters. As each character tries to manipulate the others to achieve their own ends, they pontificate wise and true about the nature of Art, the qualities that make an Artist, the essence of the Work, all with capital letters. While some of them actually believe what they are saying, only a few of them value their words enough to put their own interests aside.
Catherine Treischmann’s script with Shelley Butler’s direction is quick and lively, with every character succinctly and wholly defined from the start. Each one brought to life by the skilled and familiar cast. You know you’ve seen them all before, (both the actors and the characters), on TV, on stage, and on the big screen. That familiarity helps to draw you into the characters who are people we have all met before. More than archetypes or caricatures the company brings nuance and tics to each of them. A few of them even grow as they struggle with the distance between their ideals and their desires.
There is Dwayne, (Adam Lefevre) the Kansas country boy who fancies himself a vice-presidential portrait painter. Jolene, (Veanne Cox) the bossy list-making head of the local Arts Council, who’s struggling to get her budget passed and keep the council going. Ted, (Daniel Pearce) her lazy journalist husband, who’s looking to spice up his dull-drum life. Edie (Kristin Griffith) the widow of the Arts Council’s biggest patron, who’s trying to find her own place in the world. Liz, (Jennifer Lim) the local community college art-history professor, who’s trying to get the hell out of Kansas by making a name for herself in the art world. And last but not least, Everett, (Ray Anthony Thomas) the outsider artist Liz is championing to receive the council’s largess, who has struggles, both real and imagined, of his own.
The company is a well-oiled ensemble. At the plays climax they pull off the best staged cacophony of argument I have ever witnessed. Each character was fully committed to the argument they were in. While each argument ebbed and flowed allowing one then the other to take the focus and keep the audience following all of the arguments at once. While this is truly an ensemble piece, Mr Thomas’s portrayal of Everett stands out as strikingly naturally realized. The way he takes on his character’s speech patterns and sudden turns of thought never once felt planned or practiced. His stammering search for words felt genuinely like a man disconnected from his own thoughts as much as he is from the rest of the world around him.
Donald Sander’s lived-in costumes helped to clearly define each middle-american character, before they even speak. Even the absurd choices, (worn to excellent comic effect by Ms. Cox and Mr. Pearce), feel like the characters’ own ideas of bold, sexy choices instead of costume jokes. David M. Barber’s ever-changing unit set, with panels that rotate or unfold and sparse but exactly right furniture, takes us from the art council’s gallery to a barn on the edge of town and a couple of other locations as well. A midwestern main street scene with blue skies painted in regionalist style serves as the back drop, helping to define the time and place; Ellis County, Kansas, “The Present.” Traci Klainer Polimeni and Leon Rothenberg, (lighting and sound respectively), served the story well, helping to define the various locations in Ellis County, both physical and emotional. They also helped to maintain the energy and atmosphere during the multiple swift and well choreographed set changes.
The sitcom-absurd relationship dynamics and zippy one-liners keep the laughs coming and the energy up. With strong solid pacing, the hour and forty minute run time, (without intermission), feels much shorter. This is a hilarious and fun success for Women’s Project Theater and their director Julie Crosby.
The Most Deserving runs 7:30pm Tuesday through Saturday with 2:30pm matinees on Saturdays and Sundays thru May 4th at City Center’s Stage II, 131 West 55 St., NYC