"Brits Off Broadway," an annual lineup at 59E59 Theaters, imports stellar British productions each season. One bonus is restaging vintage material, such as 10 Saki short stories adapted for the stage in the piercingly funny Wolves at the Window. Whether zapping upper-crust attitudes about money, love or social rivalry, Saki, who died in WW1, was a keen observer of Edwardian pretensions and a genius at one-liners.
It takes Thomas Hescott's deft directorial hand -- and a talented cast -- to calibrate Saki's delicately wrought sarcasm, arch zingers that English actors deliver with élan. For instance, when a poet is asked what possessed him to write a poem on peace, he replies: "I bought a new fountain pen." When former lovers meet on a ship and renew their romance, they worry about having too many children. Thirteen is such an unlucky number. Maybe one will turn nasty and be disowned. The major isn't convinced: "You can't expect a boy to be vicious till he's been to a good school."
Starring a cast of four who effortlessly switch roles with each story, the ensemble -- Gus Brown, Anna Francolini, Jeremy Booth and Sarah Moyle -- play their parts to perfection. While the setting is period and the humor aimed at class affectation, Saki was a master at mining psychological foibles. Bringing short stories to the stage is a tricky business, but Toby Davies has a light, respectful touch, aided by Maureen Freedman's modern, minimalist set, which looks slightly surreal. "The naturally depraved" scrawled on a rafter speaks volumes. Smartly rendered and acted, Wolves, running through Dec. 6, is a gem. Audiences howled.
They had the same reaction for 25 years to Forbidden Broadway, the brainchild of Gerard Alessandrini, who wrote hysterical parodies of The Great White Way -- musicals and plays, alike. A multi-award-winning enterprise, the show has the last laugh: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books just published Forbidden Broadway - Behind the Mylar Curtain. The no-holds-barred book chronicles the revue's history and the lyrics that sent up everything from Fiddler on the Roof to Spring Awakening, Stephen Sondheim to Patti Lupone. No one escaped the razor-sharp wrath of Alessandrini, aided and abetted by fantastic casts and knowing audiences. Crammed with "mockument," this book is a keeper.
Circumcise Me is fun, but far more ephemeral. The outline is promising: A Catholic boy from suburban Philly wrestles with addiction and finds religion; in this case Judaism. That's the basis for Yisrael Campbell's one-man show, now at the Bleecker Street Theater. It offers genuinely comic moments and wacky observations about the nature of Jewish life. He's an equal-opportunity jokester.
Born Christopher, he had a mother who left the convent and an aunt who was a nun. He calls himself the son of a "manic depressive Italian woman and a pathologically silent Irishman." Teen alcoholism, coupled with a car accident, pushed him to the edge -- and helped sober him up. Intrigued by Judaism, his spiritual journey begins in earnest in Los Angeles, where he undergoes the first of his three conversions: Catholic to Reform, Reform to Conservative, Conservative to Orthodox -- "the only Jew who wore the same suit to his bris as his bar mitzvah." And he gets great mileage zinging the idiosyncrasies of various Jewish denominations. This is inside baseball, affectionately rendered.
Still, audiences are left wondering why he converted, since his love for Judaism is based less on its ethical teachings and more on its twisted interpretations about cleanliness and Chanukah candles. He says he was moved by Reform liturgy, but longed for daily ritual.
En route, he endures several circumcisions. Since he was circumcised at birth, he undergoes ritual bloodletting. Not pleasant, but once, you'd guess, would be enough. Campbell, however, is strangely passive in his religious approach, blindly doing whatever he's told: a distinctly un-Jewish trait. Is he tri-curious or religiously insatiable?
Oddly, he doesn't mention the years of study conversion demands, simplifying it to monosyllabic affirmations and a quick dip in the ritual bath. Campbell has created an entertaining and sincere monologue, but this bagel lacks bite. He needs to add lox and onions - a few tart critiques would give the surface humor more poignancy and depth.