Hell on Earth Via Delancey Street

Richard Nixon famously remarked, “I am not a crook!” Let me paraphrase that and say, “I am not a crank!” I don’t go to the theatre looking for trouble, but like all critics, I do occasionally find it. Such was the case on a recent lovely autumn evening in Manhattan. The stroll past the elegant Upper Westside townhouses was charming, and my guest and I were full of high hopes as we approached the 78th Street Theatre Lab and climbed the very long, straight staircase that led to the intimate 3rd floor theater for the opening night of Sharon Fogerty’s new musical, “The Devil of Delancey Street.”

By way of an up-front disclaimer, there are a few things I should reveal at the outset. First, I must tell you that two of those associated with this production are friends of my personal acquaintance. Second, since the political whirlwind surrounding the appointment of Harriet Meirs to the Supreme Court has suggested one’s religion needs scrutiny, I admit to being a practicing Catholic, –in fact, one who probably needs a great deal of practice. Having made that good Catholic confession, I am now prepared to take on the devil!

The wandering plot, such as it is, takes place in Lower Manhattan of the Depression era 1930’s, and plays out on a bare stage accented only by a couple of street lights and a typewriter. Fogerty gives us a pleasant performance in the lead role of Mrs. Chaste, an author of children’s books full of ghosts, witches, magic and mysticism. Though angels may have inspired her writings, the church has banned the books as immoral. Recently widowed, she learns her late husband has left his fortune to the church of the pompous and condescending Pastor Beagle (played with effete and over-the-top excess by Bradley True in pigtails). Mr. Chase, it seems, had an oddly close relationship with the pastor. Thus, Mrs. Chaste and her “bastardess” daughter, Grace (sweetly played by lovely, and vocally talented, Patti Goettlicher) are left impoverished, and take to the streets to sell personalized songs and poems to passersby. Along the way Chaste receives therapy and depression medication from Dr. Pang (Matthew Porter). Sadly, none of this medication was distributed to an audience that was numbly busy sitting on its hands.

While we know not why, enter the devil, coolly portrayed by experienced British actor, John Cunningham. While this performance will never sell him as a singer, he has a smooth, rich voice for dialogue, and reminded me more than once of the elegant vocal cadence of the late James Mason. Oh, and yes, the devil loves to profoundly exclaim, “Everyone has an addiction!” He seems to suggest that is a theme of some kind, but I remain unconvinced.

Frequently presiding center stage, with arms outstretched, is actress Karen Christie Ward as Delia, the mystical switchboard operator who helps connect the conversations of these many characters from heaven, hell, and in between. Christie inhabits a number of other minor characters, bringing to each a new and focused sense of body language and facial contortion that hints of her versatility.

With perhaps a touch of Nathan Lane in his performance, Mr. Porter also portrays the zany artist, Vincent Vandeau (pun intended, no doubt). Jeffrey Plunkett and attractive, sweet-voiced Bobbi Owens are the heavenly angels who must deal with this devil as he tries to free Mrs. Chaste (he clearly has “a thing” for her) from a questionable underworld into which she has somehow fallen. I hesitate to reveal more lest readers should decide to subject themselves to this longest hour and fifteen minutes in theatre history.

While book, music, lyrics and direction were by Miss Fogerty, Musical Director, Peter Dizozza, provided pleasant incidental music before and after the performance, and never overwhelmed the actors with his unobtrusive accompaniment while skillfully presiding at keyboard during the show. Meanwhile Fogerty, seemingly intent on tackling organized religion and providing shocking songs, gives us titles like “Go to Hell,” “Go Back to Being a Whore,” and “Now That’s F—ing.” (Readers please insert your own favorite “F” word). Doesn’t she know we get abundant shocks from the evening news and merely long for meaningful content upon the stage? Never the less, there were moments of promise. The opening “This is Life Upon Delancey Street,” had a warm ensemble chorus and sweet harmonies that nicely reprise to close the show. “Let Us Pray,” had a pleasant melody, and “Songs and Poems,” had intricate and satisfying counterpoints. Of course none of these assets justify the ultimate tedium of the piece. As to why Miss Fogerty undertook to write it, perhaps the devil made her do it.

“Devil of Delancey Street” plays Wed. thru Sat. Oct. 19th – Nov. 5th, 2005 All performances 8:00 p.m., $15.00, http://www.theatremania.com , 212-352-3101 78th St. Theatre Lab, 236 West 78th St., NYC (East of Broadway, 3rd Floor).

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About The People's Critic

David Dow Bentley III, writes columns about the performing arts which are featured in newspapers from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast. A member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), The International Theatre Critics Association, and America's oldest theatrical club, The Lambs, he also had long service as the editor of The Lambs' Script magazine. Mr. Bentley may be contacted via e-mail at ThePeoplesCritic3@gmail.com.
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