Shel's game is 'Crate' comedy

(New York Post, Wednesday, February 13, 1985)

By Clive Barnes

IT ALL starts with a terrible - but very lucky - mistake. A playwright asks a director to get him some "great" actors. He mis-hears, and gets the playwright some "crate" actors - actors accustomed, and indeed normally contracted, to act in a crate!

That is the premise of Shel Silverstein's zainly madcap and nuttily funny assortment of playlets and songlets which has just opened at the Ensemble Studio Theater, and which he calls with a logic which does him more than justice, "The Crate."

I really loved this show. It went on too long, some of the jokes were repetitious, and even the best of the humor was short on subtle and long on childish - but I truly loved it.

I erupted into internal giggles at the beginning, and I was still gastrically gurgling - as it were - at the end.

Silverstein is, I suppose, best known as a cartoonist, and best selling book purveyor, but I still recall an ornately hilarious one set play he once wrote - it was actually given here at one of the Ensemble Studio Theater's fascinating annual fiestas of one acts - called "The Lady or the Tiger."

Like this revue it went too far. And like this revue it went too far with style and energy.

In "Crate" Silverstein has opted for a series of blackout sketches, interspersed with a few none too seriously decomposed songs. The sketches range from a "Dracula" with social significance and sound liberal values, to an accommodating genie popping out of his bottle only to find an unresponsive master who wants so little that he won't even let him switch his black and white television for color.

Some of the best jokes could do with editing - a frenetic cheerleader giving a lecture on her craft or a panhandler trying to auction a "special sure-hit song-writer's pen." These were fine in concept and performance, but the concept was stretched to thin.

Yet a country-western duet of "Hamlet" was right on the button, a skit about an explorer daring a curse by stealing the emerald eye of a sacred idol proved beautifully maintained, even though the punchline could be seen a mile off.

Silverstein is much obsessed with sadomasochistic humor - such as a father giving his daughter a birthday gift of "a dead pony," then maniacally torturing her mentally until he reveals the actual gift.

And imagine a French nouvelle cuisine restaurant, where a diner asks for French toast, imagines, to his horror, that he has been served French toads - it is another auditory mix-up like "great" and "crate" - and finds, to the audience's horror, that he has been served French tocal. That is sicker than the idea of frogs on tiny crutches leaving a restaurant called La Grenouille.

So let me stress that you probably have to be on Silverstein's peculiar wavelength to appreciate hi particular vibrations. It seems that I am - and certainly his director, Art Wolff, and his very talented cast particularly resonate to his bizarre craziness.

His cast - five men and three women - are all amiably certifiable as certainly something. The three who impressed me most were Howard Sherman, Robert Trebor (a positive palindrome of an actor) and Janit Zarish. But even as I write that, I am aware of my gross unfairness to the other five, Bill Cwikowski, John Fielder, Heather Lupton, Deborah Reagan and Raynor Scheine.

We should hear more from most of them, and alot from some of them.