By Samuel L. Leiter
Unless you’re a Playbill-collecting, theatre-mad masochist who insists on seeing every show around, let me advise you about one to avoid. It’s called Midnight Street and is the work of writer-director-composer Arnold L. Cohen, whose two previous shows, Come Light My Cigarette and The Death of the Moon, were consigned to the critical trash heap in 2017.
The first was described in its press release as follows: “This suspenseful new musical tells the story of a young actress who has complicated relationships with her father and ex-lover.” It earned an aggregate score on Show Score of 29, from seven critics and 56 site members. I reviewed it for Theater Pizzazz and gave it a 20. Of the nearly 200 shows I reviewed in 2017, it was among the four worst, as per my annual report on Theatre’s Leiter Side.
The press description for The Death of the Moon, which I missed, and which appears to have had no critical coverage, reads: “In this dark new solo musical set in New York City, a disillusioned and lonely young woman spirals down into a world of drugs and prostitution.” Thirty-six Show Score members gave it an aggregate grade of 45.
I have a good idea of where Cohen’s latest creative catastrophe will fall on the scoring scale but I’ll let my review speak for itself. The show’s press description notes: “In this new musical, amid the dark and dangerous underbelly of the city, a trio plays out a seductive and lethal turf war against a vivid musical landscape.” Translated, this means that Cohen is preoccupied with yet another femme fatale and her troubles with men.
It starts out, like The Death of the Moon, almost as if it were a one-woman show featuring the character of a beautiful prostitute named Danielle (Emily Afton), decked out in universal hooker gear—a red minidress, high-heeled boots, and a black bolero jacket (designed by Chris Napolielo, who also did the cheesy set).
Danielle, not always easy to see clearly in Ross Graham’s dim lighting (it’s a “dark” musical, after all), rambles on in unnatural, artificially inflated prose, sometimes bordering on abstraction, talking about her disillusion with men, her use of her body to make money, her attraction to women, and her life as a whore.
Periodically, she breaks into pseudo-jazz-inflected music, accompanied by a single piano (musical direction: Matt Castle). Despite the New Yorkish-skyline on a panel behind her, her first song, oddly, is “A Paris Street.” Cohen, without even a spark of the necessary talent, seems to be after the tired cynicism so perfectly encapsulated in such bluesy sex workers’ songs as “Ten Cents a Dance” (with its unintendedly ironic lyric, “It’s a queer romance”) or “Love for Sale.”
Barely any narrative is expressed as Danielle goes on and on, valiantly singing one instantly forgettable song after the other, mostly on key but sometimes screeching the high notes. Finally, two men appear, one an older white man, the other a dapper black one.
The white man is King Saul (veteran Lenny Wolpe, surely wondering how he got involved in this), who doubles as a rabbi and a prostitution kingpin. The black man, Antipas (Rafael Jordan, whose offkey singing is so bad it could be an “American Idol” audition parody), is a pimp. These men insist, with threats, that Danielle join their stable because they can do without the competition. And therein forever rests the play’s dramatic seed, withered before it even has a chance to sprout.
Midway through the hour-long Midnight Street (it feels like two), the script takes a bizarrely incongruous detour into an angry history of anti-Semitism spouted by King Saul at the Jew-hating Catholic Antipas. Not to worry: Antipas gets shot by the pistol-packing hottie, who similarly disposes of Saul. The reasons for such violence are ambiguous since half the time it’s hard to figure out what anyone is talking about or to accept anyone as being human enough to care. It almost seems as if Cohen, whose imagination tilts toward the noirish, simply enjoys the sight of a hot woman with a smoking gun.
With the execrable God of Marz followed rapidly by the even less watchable Midnight Street, the new season has quickly offered two rivals for worst of the year. We now have nowhere to go but up.
Photos: Carol Rosegg
Lion Theatre/Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through June 22