This Way to the Egress

Oh No, No Net! by Andy Borowitz at the Agassiz Theater, March 15-18

REMEMBER WHEN you were young and you went to the circus? And you saw every side show? Twice. And you played every game and watched the clowns do the same thing over and over again--but you laughed each time anyway. And you ate Cracker Jack. And cotton candy. And then you got sick. Well, those days are back again--and they're as close as Radcliffe Yard and the Grant-in-Aid production of Oh No, No Net!

The key to writing good comedy is knowing when to stop. One obvious pun that makes the audience hiss may be entertaining; two or three or even four may not. One comic gesture may go over well, but a whole chorus line full makes you turn away. Somewhere in the forest of one-liners, most importantly, there's got to be a story that makes the audience eager to know what happens next. But nobody bothered to tell Andy Borowitz, author and lyricist of No Net, about overkill.

Oh No, No Net! (pun) is the story of the turn-of-the-century Circus Maximillian (pun)--"the second greatest show on earth" (joke) whose low net profits (pun) are forcing it into the red. Alas, says owner Maximillian Bucks (pun), the show needs $1 million or the big top will flop. To raise the money, Bucks calls upon Natalie Yellowbud, tightropist, singer and airhead extraordinaire, to star in an extravaganza in honor of President Woodrow Wilson. Meanwhile, Walter Wall (pun), decides he can't bear life at the stockmarket any longer. After embezzling $1 million, the stockbroker splits (pun) with his secretary and runs off to save the circus. Back at the top, Maureen Bad--"the second thinnest woman in the world" (recurring joke)--schemes and connives to burst Natalie's balloon and steal the show. Throw in an FBI detective hot on the embezzler's trail, a magician reminiscent of Bullwinkle and a chorus of circus clones and you've got the show.

The script is a Hasty Pudding reject and it reeks of it. Unfortunately, shows that work at the Pudding don't always work elsewhere. Without the big stage and the real half-men, half-women, Oh No, No Net! limps along toward its less-than-satisfying finale. Director Marisa Silver and choreographer Linda Hammett have conspired to crowd as much on the tiny stage as is possible--and more. The chorus line is massive; maybe just right to command attention on the Holyoke St. stage, but needlessly cumbersome at Agassiz. The director was in a bind--she needed the extra voice power but had to deal with small spaces. The lack of individual dancing talent is obscured by routines which emphasize coordination en masse; with so many different levels of skill on stage together, more winced than waltzed. Fred Barton's music is some of the best around, but when every piece is accompanied by the same movements and played too loud to let the lyrics come through, something gets lost in the translation. If you really want to hear the lyrics--or as few of them as the chorus enunciates--don't sit in the balcony. Most of the voices are too weak to carry. Like Borowitz, the director and choreographer work on the if-it-works-once-do-it-again-and-again principle and No Net gets boring. Some of the jokes are funny--"When I walk into a suburban kitchen," says the villainess, "all the little magnets fall off the refrigerator"--but one-liners can't pull this show along.

It's hard to judge actors and actresses when they're saddled with this script. George Hunt as the red-blazered, pink-cheeked, Shecky Greene of a circus owner is familiar with Borowitz's brand of comedy. Too familiar, it seems, because he lets himself slip into boring routines and offers the same grin too many times. Hunt has some real stage presence but his voice is weak and his character confused; you never know whether he's Natalie's seducer or mentor.


THE FEMALE leads fare better. Andrea Eisenberg as Natalie Yellowbud is disarmingly charming. Eisenberg is the perfect airhead, from the flower-in-the-hair Nature's Child look to the shit-eating grin. Amy Acquino as Maureen Bad complements Eisenberg very well. Cast against the blond frizzy dumb-dumb, Acquino makes a perfect villain; eyes drifting to the sky, slinking on the edges of the stage, and scheming her way through the show. Her solo number "I'm a Bitch" is probably the best of the evening.

Maury Leiter as "Ozzie" the magician is too cute for his own good, not quite capturing the look-at-me-and-laugh-at-a-real-moron role he is given. But George Melrod--easily the star of the show--as "Nick, Sam Nick", the detective, is the quintessential Columbo parody, from that cultivated unshaven look to his rapid-fire delivery. Nicks' exchange with Natalie in the interrogation room is really the funniest scene in the show; it makes you forget that he can't sing. Jay Bacal as the broker is aggressively mediocre, weighed down by an insecure voice and a struggle to fight his repetitive style. His secretary, Miss Zweig (Ellen Zachos) has to grapple with a woman's role written for a Pudding man but her voice is the best in the show.

In the end, it's the actors that bring this show back from the dead. It's too bad that the members of the Grant-in-Aid board (many of whom orchestrated this show) can't seem to divorce themselves from the shows they select. What they need is some artistic distance. And what Andy Borowitz really needs is a good editor. In No Net, he's let loose and with the cost of this production he should have been leashed. As Bucks says when he describes the audience's reaction to his circus, I haven't seen such a disappointed crowd since the Chicago Fire." (Joke.)