Dare to tread where death abounds? The Blighted Heart surely killed the critic as he wrote his front row review of this 9-act torchy blunder. The farce it’s part of, Stiff, is simply to die for. Laughing, that is. Find this frenzied, farcical delite at The Barrow Group Theatre (TBG Theatre) through March 3, 2018 in its Off Broadway showcase foray to the Big Apple.
When respected Dallas stage director/ actor/playwright Jeff Swearingen penned and directed Stiff in 2014 for his unique Dallas youth theatre ensemble Fun House Theatre and Film, he had no idea where it could go. One of a string of original hits for his professional company, produced by Bren Rapp, the work became an overnight regional hit. It provided a comprehensive comedic learning experience for its ensemble of dedicated youth actors and one of the funniest viewing experiences for Dallas audiences of all ages that year. See my 8/3/2014 review below.
In its current TBG Theatre run, adult version Stiff offers a sharp-edged, side-splitting old-fashioned escape into the madcap, unstable world of producing a stage play. (It glows with an ambience similar to Noises Off, The Producers, or You Can’t Take It With You in style, timing, gags and erudition.) In Swearingen’s Stiff, desperate, creative minds conspire to revive a serious flop after the untimely demise of “big-time” theatre critic Mickey Blake (Robert Tunstall) mid-performance, slumped in his front row seat. The Blighted Heart’s Nervous Nellie playwright (Mitch Lerner), insufferably insecure director (Joshua Morgan) and hyperactive producer with grandiose aspirations (Nicolas Greco) seize upon the dubious opportunity Blake’s death offers to fricassee their turgid turkey into first-rate gourmet succulence. Or so they aspire. Indeed, life grabs the enterprising trio by the short hairs in a melee of disastrous mirth and hilarity that spans relentlessly across Stiff’s two acts. The TBG audience gets the delicious chance to watch a new classic in the making unfold…raw, rowdy, rare and required in today’s cultural milieu short of inspired laughter.
Andy Baldwin, veteran actor in the Tim Conway tradition and established North Texas director, pilots his versatile cast through Stiff’s outrageous twists and turns with the assured confidence of a practiced master of comic expression. Outstanding performances opening night came from Stiff’s playwright Jeff Swearingen as The Blighted Heart’s cringe-worthy, clueless leading man, Clifton Samuels as a smarmy Weinstein-style producer who “drops in” unexpectedly to visit his buddy, the dead Mickey Blake, and especially Lori Funk as Blake’s drunken harridan wife, whose comic chops and physicality may rival Carol Burnett in her early years. High point of the farce took place in Dallas in 2014 with a duct tape enhanced “death waltz” featuring the trio of grim conspirators and dead critic. This moment in the NYC production, choreographed with energetic aplomb by assistant director Brandon Mason, steals the show once more. Audiences returned in Dallas to howl at the chorus-style routine, again and again.
A memorable perk of attending a new show in its Off Broadway showcase incarnation is getting to see it before all the rough edges get filed off and it becomes a bonafide hit…like watching an emerging talent before stardom whisks them to celebrity status. Stiff needs some work, true. It’s too long at over two hours. Two many scenes from disastrous The Blighted Heart in Act Two slow its momentum. Occasionally the conspirator trio falls into a one-note sameness of delivery in tempo and volume. The female characters in the show at opening, outside of Blake’s wife, had not found yet the defining comic or physical potentials the taut script or outrageous costuming presents to them. Go for it, ladies. Now. Nothing a few judicious script cuts and pick up rehearsals can’t fix. This ship is sailing, y’all, on its way into the comic annals of beloved American theatre across the regions. Don’t miss Stiff. Revel in its bounty of fresh laughter.
Stiff runs at TBG Theatre in New York City through March 3. Tickets: www.funhousetheatreandfilm.com