CRITICAL MASS by Joanne Sydney Lessner – The Lion Theatre at Theatre Row – Off Broadway Theater Review

by Cindy Pierre on October 26, 2010

in Theater-New York

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A critic’s words can sting like a wasp or soothe like a balm. When it stings, a bad review can turn the tables on the critic and make him or her the target of hate mail, death wishes, and even physical harm.  Critic Joanne Sydney Lessner’s farcical Critical Mass takes the danger to preposterous but sometimes hilarious extremes when an Italian opera singer, Stefano Donato (Aaron Davis), threatens to take a mob contract out on the husband (also a critic) of the critic who panned his career.  Though there’s heavy exposition and the plot is a tangled yarn, there are some genuinely moving and funny moments and keen insights about the art of criticism.

Performed on Chris Minard’s studious but slightly warm set, Critical Mass unfolds with the same balance of academia and heart.  The play even begins with doormat Norman (Zac Hoogendyk) and ballbuster Carrie (Leigh Williams) discussing her evil ways as he gives her a very intimate tush rub.  All is haughty but not always hunky dory until Stefano barges into their lives, plotting revenge on Norman—the Pisan mob doesn’t take contracts out on women—for Carrie’s damaging review.  A lot of back and forth ensues until Stefano moves in with them—that’s right, moves in—to systematically ruin Norman’s life against the wishes of his wife Francesca (Shorey Walker).

Though the circumstances are harried and create too much debate, the script does give the actors ample opportunity to be versatile and have fun.  Everyone’s an imposter, but no one does it better than Walker as Francesca thinks of creative ways to check up on her husband.   As Cedric, the editor of Opera World, Marc Geller is hilarious with an exaggerated snootiness that delights. When the play is funny, it goes all out, but there are just as many instances where it’s too bizarre and needs to be roped in. Then when you think the play is over, another scene and then another tops its outlandish predecessor.

There’s nothing outrageous about the perils of criticism.  When evaluating art, a discipline that’s already emotion-based, there’s bound to be an explosive reaction every once in a while.  At its best, Critical Mass is a passionate argument for all of the parties involved.  No one is made blameless, but everyone is made human.

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photos by Erin Unanue

scheduled to close November 7 at time of publication
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