“An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein”

Presented at the Atlantic Theater, 330 W. 20th Street, New York, NY, 10011
September 29-November 18, 2001
Directed by Karen Kohlhaas; starring Jordan Lage, Maryann Urbang, Josh
Stamberg, Alicia Goranson, Jody Lambert, and Kelly Maurer

Really, all I can say is that I was very, very impressed with this production. All facets–from the gorgeous set design, the enthusiasm and passion displayed by the actors, the fact that the only music played before, during, and after the sets were songs that Shel wrote, and most of all, to the one-act plays themselves–a mixture of social satire, wit, sexual innuendo, and sheer brilliance. Oh yes, I had a wonderful time.

Now, the details:

I got to the theater early with a friend of mine to pick up our tickets, and the lobby, besides prominently displaying a billboard with the title of the production and the credits, had a few of Shel’s playboy articles on the wall, specifically the Silverstein in Moscow and Silverstein in Greenwich Village pieces. Seeing the cartoons and Larry Moyer’s photos of Shel with hair–usually surrounded by women, naturally– were great, and I really need to seek out the old Playboys and get copies of all the travelogues. But that’s a side story. We went into the theater and took our seats, and the first thing I noticed was the set design, this bright blue curving linoleum-like idea with two patches of different sizes. Very minimalistic but also extremely contemporary, kind of Warhol-ish without overdoing it. And as it kept changing throughout the show, it really was a versatile and appropriate design. And as I had mentioned earlier, the music played while we waited were a mixture of Silverstein-penned songs, from “One’s on the Way” to “Old Dogs” to “Don’t Go to Sleep on the Road” to “If I’d Only Come and Gone” to “Acapulco Goldie”, and that was only the ones I’m remembering. The lights dimmed and the music changed to the Dr. Hook version of “Freakin’ at the Freakers Ball”, and though I kind of prefer Shel’s version, it hardly mattered–it was an excellent way to kick off the show.

There were ten plays presented, split into two sets. The first of them was “One Tennis Shoe” which was presented back in 1985 as part of the Ensemble Studio Theater’s Marathon series. Though I kept wondering how Christine Baranski did it back in the original version, Maryann Urbang did an excellent job portraying a society woman’s slow descent from normalcy to lunacy after her husband (played here by Jordan Lage, who perhaps was the best actor of a really great group of six) irrationally–or so it seemed–accused her of being a bag lady. This play really set the tone for what was to follow, as many followed a particular formula, unconscious or not–usually involving two characters, a situation that would be normal in real life but through a slight skewed look or a pun or a different take becomes hyper-real and incredibly conflicted, and though one person is on the defensive at first, he or she manages to turn the tables by the end. Sometimes the results were unbelievably hilarious, and other times it made me squirm in my seat, but I was never, ever anything more than riveted.

In “Bus Stop” a young woman is stopped by a man holding a sign that looks like it says ‘bus stop’ but really says “BUSt Stop,” and proceeds to list all the possible synonyms of the word “bust.” I didn’t even know half of them existed. But after enduring this litany, the young woman manages to twist things around quite nicely in her favor until the sign-wielding man is running away in abject terror.

“Going Once” has a simple setup–an auctioneer is trying to sell a marketable commodity, but this time it’s a live female who is prepared to do “anything” and live with you forever. Jody Lambert as the auctioneer did a formidable job in what pretty much amounted to an extended monologue, while Kelly Lambert as the sellee did nicely with the series of gestures she had to do throughout. 

“The Best Daddy” originally premiered as part of The Crate back in 1985, and was perhaps the most uncomfortable experience of the evening. A proud father prepares to give his 13-year old daughter the birthday present she desires–a beautiful pony--but not before subjecting her to a series of cruel psychological tortures that reduces her to a complete shambles before finally giving her something else equally special. It’s kind of the flip side of Shel’s children’s poetry, in that he not only understood what made children tick but what made children really, really destroyed. The funny thing was that the poem “Little Abigail and her Pony” was played, but not before this particular play. That would have been an interesting juxtaposition. Alicia Goranson (formerly known as Lecy Goranson, aka the first Becky on “Roseanne”) deftly portrayed poor young Lisa’s revulsion and horror.
The first set closed with “The Lifeboat is Sinking”, which premiered as part of the EST’s  Octoberfest 99 festival. A husband and wife are acting out a game–if they, their daughter, and his mother were on a sinking lifeboat, and the husband could only save two of the other people, which would they be? Much psychological mind-bending ensues as the wife essentially makes the husband go through a series of hellish sequences just to find out “how he thinks.” This might have been my least favorite of the bunch if only because the satire didn’t seem to flow out of something real-life quite as well as the other plays did.

After a short break the second set started with “Smile”, where an unfortunate man is thrown into an isolated room and interrogated furiously by three authority types on subversive behavior–was he the nefarious inventor of the smiley face, and the phrases “right on” and “have a nice day”? A very sly take on political correctness and stupid cliches that have permeated our culture. The only slight problem is that the smiley-face guy just died recently so that particular joke didn’t quite go over with me since I knew who actually created that particular image. But again, I digress. 

“Wash and Dry” which originally premiered as part of another of the EST’s Marathon series took a simple premise–taking clothes to the laundry–and turning a misunderstanding about the nature of the business (you see, it really was a WATCH and dry establishment!) into a horrifying mixture of blackmail and invasion of privacy. This particular play really demonstrated Shel’s incredible ability to take an ordinary situation and push it to the limit in ways that only he could have ever thought of.

“Thinking Up a New Name For the Act” was even more minimal–the only words used throughout were “Meat” and “Potatoes”. Yet somehow, this was the most virtuosic and gregarious of all the plays, with tons of dancing, gesturing, and a surprise ending that had all of us in paroxysms of laughter. I couldn’t help but note the parallels to Stan Freberg’s classic “John and Marsha” parody from the early 50s, but I highly doubt that Stan would have ever been so daring and go-for-broke.

My favorite, or at least the play that had me in awe of Shel’s utter brilliance, was “Buy One, Get One Free.” First, the transition between this and the previous play was mediated by having Ms. Goranson and Kelly Maurer do their clothes changes to the tune of “Get My Rocks Off”, which segued right into the premise of the one-acter, that of two hookers teaming up–buy the services of one, and the other will be thrown in for free. A potential customer comes along and the entire play is done in rhyme, with all the rhymes ending with the vowel “e.” After watching this I will never forget just how Shel could manipulate the English language to his advantage, rhyming words that have no business being in the same sentence and making it all look easy. I could make a crack about him being a cunning linguist, but why bother. Everybody knows that :-)

Finally, the show ended with “Blind Willie and the Talking Dog,” a sometimes-poignant exchange between a blind blues singer and his dog, who just wants to showcase his talent for speech somewhere, even if it means the end of a beautiful friendship. Nice job on the blues harmonica by Josh Stamberg and Jordan Lage really did his best, I thought, as the talking dog.

I really didn’t want this to end. I’m seriously thinking of catching the production again before it closes on November 18th, because for the first time in months I felt connected to Shel and his words, and I really want to recapture that feeling. Karen Kohlhaas did a phenomenal job in choosing the plays, picking just the right songs to play, and coordinating a tough task– reviving a previously hidden aspect of Shel’s talent. If you’re in New York City, you have no reason not to see the show. I just hope that with the over 100 that the Atlantic Theater has in possession–never mind that it’s probably a small fraction of his output, just in terms of plays–that there will be future editions of these “Adult Evenings.”