Sunday, August 17, 2014

"Less Than 50%" @ NY Fringe

"Less Than 50%" is one of the most fresh and innovative romantic comedies I've seen in the past few years. It's a work of uber meta-theatre as the lead actor is also the writer and using the space to recreate his relationship's trajectory on stage...with his actual former girlfriend playing the stage version of herself. They stop and start the play to discuss the truth of some scenes, while going for the 'theatrical truth of the moment' at other times. Interspersed between the vignetted re-enactments are stand-up comedy routines, discussions about art, education, and what it means to say the word 'love.'

Gianmarco Soresi is the lead actor/narrator/playwright/boyfriend of this ambitious undertaking. His romantic 'better' is played by ex-girlfriend/co-lead/collaborator Laura Catalano. For the entire 90 minutes these 2 characters battle it out, jumping in and out of roles across a wide spectrum of time.

I have a soft-spot for meta-romantic comedies with neurotic New Yorkers. Like many nerdy and quirky moviegoers, I grew up on Woody Allen. "Annie Hall" was on a loop in my family's living room along with "The Cosby Show." "Annie Hall" is a masterpiece about Woody Allen playing a fictional Alvy Singer in order to discuss his the real artist dilemma with relationships and turning 40, with obvious homages to Fellini's "8 1/2" which was about an Italian director working through his artistic block and dilemma with relationships by putting up a movie within a movie. "The Cosby Show" was named after the real Bill Cosby whose playing a fictional Heathcliff Huxtable (in an jesting nod to the Bronte sisters) who has a family that replicated the real Cosby and became a way for him to employ his stand-up routines about his real family in a fake TV setting.  I say all of this because it's easy to forget how intricate and complex the mobius-strip overlap is between fiction and non-fiction in meta-media. Contemporary audiences are so accustomed to the form that we take it for granted.

In "Less Than 50%" there's a play within a play within a play that draws on the wealth of personal and artistic history from the leading pair. At the top of the show, Giarmarco explains the rules and context of what's about to take place. He's rewriting the love story as it takes place, seeking inspiration from both scripted sections, improv, and discussions about the play. Laura walks in and they begin a hilarious Meisner acting repetition exercise around pregnancy before 'breaking' to discuss their feelings about the moment. The show's title is based on the commonly known fact that less than 50% of marriages survive the pressures of lies, adultery, and creeping distrust.

Gianmarco pushes the story forward with a some times reluctant and unwilling actress/girlfriend who gives line readings that counter what her boyfriend wrote. As the story progresses it also begins to unravel and come undone in both content and form. The tone jumps around from stand-up, to  standard romantic comedy patter, etymological dissections of overused words like 'fuck' and 'love.' and playing against the expectations of the rom-com happy ending.

Director Max Freedman helps weave all these different elements together into a wonderful theatrical tapestry. The fact that it flows as one continuous arc is a tribute to Freedman's directorial skill with comedy. Laura Catalano is blissfully adorable and strong-willed in her role. She holds her own against Gianmarco's nitpicking and tangential rants. Catalano's illuminates her 'character' and shows how they make the perfect least on stage.

I have broad rom-com tastes. I truly enjoy schmaltzy stuff like "Garden State" as well as nostalgic reminiscing like "Love and Basketball" and classics in the vein of "His Girl Friday." But to me shows like "Less Than 50%" are the future of new romantic narratives. Our generation has become too cynical to root for traditional hetero-normative patriarchal stories...unless the leads are vampires, zombies, aliens, mutants, know what: never mind. Traditional romantic stories will be fine because as long as the human species continues they will always be teenage girls, smoldering loners, lonely wives, disaffected husbands, and drifting souls looking for their other half. But for those of us looking for these stories with a twist of self-awareness, neurosis, and inquisitively restless spirits looking for more out of love and life, stories like "Less Than 50%" will hold a special place in our hearts.  

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