Eager to Lose
In recent years, Ars Nova, the Off-Broadway Shangri-La for emerging young artists, has introduced an inundation of talent. Heavy hitters like downtown darling Joe Iconis, director du jour Alex Timbers and the dashing Lin Manuel Miranda have risen to the drop of the theatre scene like whipped cream since their debuts at the midtown hangout.
Matthew-Lee Erlbach seems to be no exception. Utilizing the theatre’s tailored development programs and collaborating with directors Wes Grantom and Portia Krieger, Erlbach’s amiable "Eager To Lose" grows angelic wings and soars well before the curtains unravel.
Presiding over the intimate Tim Tam Room, a smoky burlesque cabaret, the handsome and sly MC (played by John Behlman) introduces a menagerie of lovely ladies showing off their assets and their best "Don’t Tell Mama" sex kitten pouts. The handsome fella donning a straw hat and some fabulous of the era whiskey-drenched pipes, schmoozes with the audience and makes light of these girls’ coy (though sometimes air-headed) retorts and for a moment, it seems like it’s business as usual for the young Master of Ceremonies. That is, until he introduces Tansy, the sizzling crown jewel to the decadent nightclub. When Tansy announces she’s leaving burlesque to be with "Friends" actor David Schwimmer, MC decides it’s time to act and profess his unbridled passion.
Also, taking action is the ambitious, status-seeking Tricky (played with a sultry cunningness by Stacy Yen) and the fresh-faced, golden-hearted baby doll Glinda (played with laugh-out-loud comedic timing by Emily Walton). With Tansy gone and new shoes to fill, who should get the keys of Tim Tam Room: The seasoned and bitter sexpot who paid for her dues and waited in the wings far too long or the optimistic and caring newcomer with singing chops?
Insanity ensues when MC’s "mute" friend Peeps is handed a letter to give to Tansy, who doesn’t respond immediately. Now a jittery mess, MC decides to get entailed: Peeps and MC go drag to survey Tansy and her pin-up pals, with the intentions to kidnap Tansy, in hopes that she’s seen his crime of passion as an act of love. Or, maybe he hopes she’ll develop Stockholm Syndrome? Who knows?
A Vegas-style burlesque becomes an awkward romp, with MC and Peeps failing to seduce the crowd with showgirl gusto in their turquoise feathers-inducing laughs, before running off. Little does MC know that Tansy also has feelings, and when the ladies return to their dressing room, they come to the conclusion that the men have played a ruse on them. So, Tansy goes drag a la "Twelfth Night’s" Viola to snoop. More comedy ensues.
Perhaps the oddest element of the Day-Glo on velvet curtain and champagne guzzling decadence of "Eagar To Lose" is not that the star of the show Tansy (an actual performer, known in those circles as the Elizabeth Taylor of Burlesque) choreographed the show. Rather, it’s use of language.
Fluctuating between antediluvian verse and like, OMG contemporary prose, Erlback seasons his script with a heightened wit, edgy mien, razzle-dazzle braggadocio and contemporary funny. The result: a vaudeville show with 1600s ribaldry, Jazz Age belt songs, pasties-twirling girly show musical numbers... and pantomime.
The talented cast each brought an old-timer’s Broadway flair to the small mid-town theatre, providing laughs as well as deserved applause. The admirable and fluid direction was nothing to laugh at either, delivering an almost cinematic glamour, as light and shadow danced across the stage. Even with the house band providing offbeat snark and playing motifs of some of the Great White Way’s favorite shows in the American Songbook, there was a delicate balance of tone; a sure sign of a solid show.
Though perhaps the biggest standout was mum Igor figure Peeps (played with the precision of a surgeon and the movement of a world class dancer by Richard Saudek). When Saudek wasn’t on the stage, there was almost a longing for the character to reappear; a presence he held over the audience. The elaborate, over-the-moon performance art of the nonspeaking role also included a nigh three-minute story without words by Saudek, something only few skilled and versatile character actors, like Saudek, can execute. Watch out for Richard Saudek, folks. An Off-Broadway star has been born.
The wackadoodle show mixing Molière and Shakespeare in a glitzy Maker’s Mark cocktail fizzes like the finest champagne and sparkles in kilowatt bright light. Have a drink, watch the girls, and if you think the show is bad, well, the liquor’s will lift your spirits a tad.
"Eager to Lose" runs through Nov. 9 at Ars Nova, 511 W. 54th St. in New York. For information or tickets, call 212-489-9800 or visit http://arsnovanyc.com/eager-to-lose