Monday, April 27, 2009

Conor Sullivan: A Comedy of Ego

By Russ Bickerstaff
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The final performance of Marquette’s Alternative Theatre Festival was the second performance of a feature-length comedy show—The Untitled Conor Sullivan Life Story Project. The basic premise follows a comic staging of a doomed production of a dramatic staging of Marquette student Conor Sullivan’s life story as written and directed by Conor Sullivan. Matt Wickey plays Conor Sullivan—evidently directing another actor playing Conor Sullivan in a play-within-a-play format. It’s also distinctly possible that Matt Wickey was playing the character playing Conor Sullivan. I don’t know--it was a bit difficult to understand the printed program, as there were clearly way more people in the show than listed in its pages. In any case, it’s a deliberately narcissistic comedy of ego as a group of actors playing the cast illustrate their reasons for hating the stage Conor, who is directing a play about his own life that they are starring in.

Playing narcisism for comedy in this fashion has been done before in numerous other places. Possibly the most accomplished work in this sort of genre is that of novelist Mark Leyner, who wrote no less than two novels starring himself as a larger than life character. Whereas Et Tu, Babe and The Tetherballs of Bougainville were brilliant works of satire on the nature of self-obsession with a uniquely intellectual bent, Conor Sullivan’s play labors away on a much lower level of comedy.

The story starts as the cast as discussing the physical assault of its director with a psychologist named Dr. Martin Balsdasarre (Joe Picchetti.) In order for him to understand why they lashed out him as they did, the cast takes turns relating the story of how they came to be as angry with Conor as they were. Conor’s exaggerated life story plays out onstage slowly. We get glimpses of the reharsal process for the play within the play and we see how Conor is mistreating the cast. The problem here is not that the Conor character isn’t sufficiently distasteful. The problem here is that his distastefulness never really seems novel enough to be genuinely funny beyond a very simple comic level. The premise of the play—an intricate skewering of the nature of stage ego with a play being staged within a larger play--shows a great deal of promise, but Sullivan the playwright never really delivers on the promise of the premise. The humor relies too heavily on smug wordplay and cheesy melodrama. The wordplay and cheesy melodrama ARE funny, but relying too heavily on them makes the overall experience of the show a bit tiring.The comedy is charming at the beginning, but get a bit monotonous by the time the first intermission hits.

The cast playing Conor and the actors he’s directing are talented enough. Of particular note here is Eleni Sauvageau’s performance as Sullivan’s silent assistant. The thin little woman blindly does everything Conor asks of her—regardless of how menial the task is. Sauvageau has a clever grasp of physical comedy and it’s fun to watch. Also putting in an impressive performance from the margins of the play is John Gallagher in the role of Janitor David—oddly inspirational figure that Conor occasionally flashes back to in inspiration. It’s kind of a weak gag that is aided immeasurably by Gallagher’s minimalist approach. PJ Berns shows a great deal of comic potential as the guy playing Conor’s agent. Jennifer Mitchell does an excellent job of keeping a straight face while saying some pretty ridiculous lines. Alexandra Bonesho plays dual roles of child and nurse with a very clever stage presence fused with an impressive level of nuance,

As witnessed here, Conor’s style of humor seems to have a unique voice, but he’s going to have to work on developing natural comedic talent into something more substantial.

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