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Brandon Judell


"Titanic" by Christopher Durang
Play by Christopher Durang. Directed by Rommel Tolentino. Choreography by Mabel Gomez.
Aaron Davis Hall at The City College of New York, 135th Street and Convent Avenue.
Opened April 6, 2006.
Closed April 8, 2006.
Reviewed by Brandon Judell April 7, 2006

Christopher Durang is an anarchist, an anarchist whose bombs are composed of wit, horse sense, and an obsession for unvarnished truth. His targets? Mendacious institutions such as the Church, government, and the media, all arbiters of societal mores that mean to straightjacket the less powerful in their unending search for love, happiness, and the pursuit of angst-free orgasms.

His early play "Titanic," which we are concerned with here, was first performed at the Yale Experimental Theatre in 1974 and two years later by the Direct Theatre on West 43rd Street with Sigourney Weaver in the role of Lidia, a part that no doubt prepared her for her future role as Ripley in the "Alien" enterprise.

The play, which does take place on the doomed Titanic and is far superior in both suspense value and ridiculousness than James Cameron's take on the matter, evolved in two classes Durang was enrolled in at Yale.

In the first, the instructor Howard Stein asked the class to compose a "scene on a train with a man smoking a cigar, and a woman asking him to stop." The playwright recalls in the intro to a collection of his plays, "Christopher Durang Explains It All For You," that "my train was . . . a boat, and not much was said about cigars, though a lot was said of white bread, mirrors, and marmalade."

In the second class, the playwright/cartoonist Jules Feiffer was the instructor, a very wise one, who championed the work, insisting it was a quality effort recreating with finesse the "pre-pubescent temper tantrum of children learning about their parents 'doing it.' "

In a recent appearance at City College, Durang noted that when the reviews came out in the New York press, which were rather hostile to "Titanic," he wondered aloud whether anyone would ever produce one of his plays again. A particular critique, in fact, began with just a one-word exclamation: "Horrors!"

Horrors indeed!

This farcical play begins with the extremely well-off but not-so-proper couple Victoria and Richard Tammurai chatting away in the ship's dining room. By their side is their 20-year-old son Teddy dressed as a little boy in short pants. What starts out as a romantic riff between spouses ends up in divorce hearings with Victoria noting, "Richard, when you married me you looked down on my American ways. You made fun of the pig farm. You made rude suggestions about my mother. And one night, after you hurt me deeply in front of our dinner guests—you had ridiculed my bouef de bordelaise—I went out on our beach and I wept. And on the beach I met a derelict who saw my pain, and he reached out to me as a human being."

This beach bum turns out to be Teddy's real father. But what about the Tammaurai's daughter Annabella? Richard reveals that he had faked Victoria's pregnancy, and Annabella is actually the child he had with Harriet Lindsay.

Harriet, as we will eventually learn, is Victoria's sister, daughter, and lover; Richard's mistress and daughter; the captain of the ship's daughter, Lidia; Teddy's seducer and sibling; plus on her own, a sadistic, cannibalistic nymphomaniac who keeps various animals such as hedgehogs up her vagina.

That's just for starters. Eventually everyone on the ship will screw everyone else at least twice, and Richard will wind up marrying Teddy and calling him Dorothy, while Victoria will wed Annabella/Harriet/Lidia, who is trying to sink the liner.

Yes, marriage, death, and strictly-drawn sexual persuasions all get their comeuppance here, and brilliantly so under the helming of student director Rommel Tolentino. In fact, I would bet my lottery winnings right now—if I had any—that this young man will become a force to be reckoned with in the legitimate theater scene within the next decade.

His exuberant, seamless re-imagining of "Titanic" into a comedy with high-kicking dance numbers is a highlight of the theatrical season, one that I would have paid to see more than once. (Admission was free.) And I 'm not alone. A writer for New York Magazine raved to me about this production's continued resonance for him while another scribe for Show People exclaimed this production was superior to the current "Three Penny Opera" in every manner possible.

The near-unanimous hooting, shock and laughter of the audience additionally confirmed this production's success.

Rising to the talents of Tolentino and the superb choreographer Mabel Gomez were actors Greer Samuels and Julie Tran.

Samuels took the secondary role of Sailor and transformed it into a lead with his bravura dancing, comic timing, lithe, muscular body, and putty face which he can transform from a petulant seducer's to a put-on nerd's with the snap of the fingers.

Tran's Lidia, with her multiple identities and crazed lecherous pursuits, constantly persuaded that the criminally inane was feasible. With grace and a solid stage presence, whether she was molting from her privates or tying up her brother to deflower him, she enraptured. This was a breakout performance.

Equally fine were the vivid Mia Stephenson and dignified Alexander Mulzac as the libidinous parents, the ingenuous Al Patrick Jo as the put-upon Teddy, plus the lively supporting cast and dancers.

Clearly, this presentation along with The City College's Theatre Department's inventive production of "Cabaret" last season are proof that something's going awfully right at New York City's public universities.

Copyright © Brandon Judell 2006

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