(New York Times Theater Review, February 15, 1985)

By Frank Rich

What's a playwright to do when his director, having been firmly instructed to round up a troupe of "great actors", misunderstands and hires a cast of "crate actors" instead? Such is the question posed by Shel Silverstein at the start of "The Crate," his new potpourr of "playlets and songlets" at the Ensemble Studio Theater. Being a resourceful fellow–as well as a very funny one–Mr. Silverstein thereafter provides his own answer. "The Crate" is an evening of loony comic bits set in, on or around a large wooden crate–all performed by eight of the "greatest and cratest actors who have ever hit the boards."

Whatever else is to be said about Mr. Silverstein, he's a man who marches to his own unpredictable beat. Best known for his ribald contributions to Playboy magazine and his whimsical children's books (most recently the bestselling "The Light in the Attic") he has been testing the theatrical waters for a few years now. The result has been a steady flow of antic one-act plays–some wonderful ("The Lady or the Tiger"), some less so. True to form, "the Crate" is also uneven: inspired gags can give way to out-and-out duds. Yet even the lesser items are greaced by the author's light-headed, uninhibited sensibility–not to mention the crate.

Although Mr. Silverstein at first considers the possibility of having the crate represent "man's confinement," he quickly finds jollier, more concrete uses for it. In some of the better routines, the crate doubles for Dracula's crypt, an X-rated jack-in-the-box, a throne and even Ahab's whaling ship. According to Mr. Silverstein, "Moby Dick" can be encapsulated in a vest-pocket musical, complete with the requisite bows to Melville's symbolism and a sexy, singing-and-dancing white whale (Deborah Reagan). "The Crate" also contains "The Ballad of Hamlet as Performed in a Crate"–an ingenious country-Western ditty that succesfully reduces the plot of Shakespeare's play to a rhymed quatrain.

It's not the least of this writer's virtures that, unlike so many current humorists, he's willing to crack jokes about our real culture instead of prime-time television shows. But he never takes himself too seriously and isn't embarrassed to be completely silly. In his retelling of "Snow White," the mirror orders the queen (Janet Zarish) to stop worrying about being the fairest of them all so that she can liberate herself from "the pressures of a youth-oriented society." Bill Cwikowski, playing a customer at a toney Frency restaurant, orders French toast only to receive a plateful of French toes, and Robert Trebor, as a third-rate Las Vegas comic in a high-pressured audition, sings "The Love Theme from ‘Barry Lyndon.'" Mr. Trebor later plays a genie whose master (John Fiedler) refuses to make three wishes for fear of inviting an audit by the Internal Revenue Service.

If "The Crate" often resembles a good-natured, try-anything collegiate revue, it can also be savage. In one sketch, a kindly but dotty Santa Claus makes a literally fatal bookkeeping error and brings the wrong gift to a prisoner (Raynor Scheine) on San Quentin's death row. Sadistic gift-giving of another sort can be found when a smiling father turns his 13-year-old daughter's birthday celebration into a macabre form of psychological torture. In that and other sketches–as in past works–Mr. Silverstein darkly suggests that most of us will endure any form of humiliation if there's a shiny prize or sexual thrill offered in exchanged. The show's energetic director, Art Wolff, isn't unaware of the grimmer undercurrents of "The Crate," but he lets the morals bounce about as fizzily as the nonsense verses, a cappella songs and throwaway one-liners. The cast, populated by some experienced Silverstein hands, is indeed the cratest. I particularly admired Mr. Trebor's frustrated genie, Miss Zarish in an overlong but vicious portrait of a blood-and-lust-crazed cheerleader, Heather Lupton as a baffled tree searching for her roots, and the versatile Howard Sherman, who is equally adept at impersonating Santa, Ahab, Indiana Jones and a metaphysical Tin Pan Alley panhandler. A tall, intense young clown with a demented grin, Mr. Sherman may just grow up to be Sid Caesar someday. With any luck, Mr. Silverstein will never grow up at all.

Note: There is a picture accompanying the article with the caption, "Deborah Reagan, left, Bill Cwikowski, Heather Lupton and Janet Zarish in "The Crate," by Shel Silverstein, at the Ensemble Studio Theater." The picture has the guy inside a crate with the women surrounding him.