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The following are the FringeNYC 2018 shows I’ve seen from beginning to end. (Shows that I walk out of mid-stream—sometimes just because time is exceptionally short for me this month, but sometimes to avoid tearing my head off—aren’t mentioned.)
The shows are listed in rough order of personal preference, with each production assigned one to four stars using the following rating system:
**** = Transcendently Great
*** = Solid & Worth Seeing
** = Unless Your Relatives Are in the Cast, Think Twice
* = “I Wanted to Kill Myself”
I’ll be updating the list often, so please make a habit of checking this page frequently.
Please also note that I very seldom rate a show four stars. (For example, during FringeNYC 2016 I gave only 5 productions **** out of 58.)
All that said, what follows are the 14 FringeNYC 2018 shows I’ve seen to date from beginning to end, listed in rough order of preference:
Off the Grid ****
Sometimes I Google a performer before deciding whether to see his show. When doing that for stand-up Raanan Hershberg, I landed on a roast battle in which Hershberg destroyed his opponent Jay Welch with a single line, cleverly taking advantage of the fact one of the judges was beloved comic Big Jay Oakerson. (You can watch it by clicking here; the pertinent round starts at 16:39.). This video proved that, at minimum, Hershberg was a way talented writer of one-liners—which, if you’re coming from the literary world, is the comedy equivalent of being a poet laureate.
What I couldn’t tell was whether Hershberg also had the discipline and deep understanding of stories to create an effective long-form work—especially one on as small a topic as his having to spend a single day without his iPhone. The fact is very, very few comics have the skills to create both finely honed jokes and movie-like tales that take you a memorable and satisfying journey.
Gentle reader, I’m delighted to report that Hershberg is one of the rare jewels of a writer/performer who can do it all.
His one-man show Off the Grid is virtually non-stop laughs, delivered by a veteran stand-up with great intelligence and impeccable timing. But it’s also so carefully and shrewdly constructed as to emotionally sneak up at you at the end and leave you deeply moved. If you’re someone who spends too much time online, you might even find it life-altering.
This is easily one of the best-written and best-performed shows in the festival. It’s also one of the finest one-man shows you’re likely to see anywhere.
Netflix, if you’re looking for your next comedy special, here it is.
But gentle reader, don’t wait for the TV version. Take advantage of the opportunity FringeNYC is providing to experience this intimate, magnificent show live by nabbing tickets here; just $12.30 each using promo code ACRBV21.
Truth be told, I didn’t have high hopes for a musical comedy about penis enlargement. But curiosity got the better of me.
And I’m so glad it did…because this is one of most energetic and fun productions of the festival.
Jake Smith (member of superb UCB musical improv group Rumpleteaser) & James Donahower have written a show filled with lively, clever lyrics and dialogue, and extremely enjoyable music (performed by a fine band named “The Dicktones”) that will probably have you smiling throughout.
Also fine is the cast. Cynthia Bonacum simply blew me away, as she was constantly radiant and irresistibly likeable as an actress, and demonstrated one of the most beautiful singing voices you’re likely to hear at the fest (and while pretending to be Russian!). I expect this young performer to enjoy a stellar career.
Other standouts included Ken McGraw, a comedic actor who was way funnier and more charismatic than he needed to be playing the lead’s best friend; Jake Smith as the lead, who in addition to writing the show has a distinctive singing voice; and McLean Peterson, who believably played the most popular girl in school.
I’m not rating this higher because, as it stands, the characters are all two-dimensional and the story is almost nonexistent. But the book could be vastly improved by a script doctor who better understands how to structure stories; and the current high concept, sharp comedy, enjoyable songs, and dance numbers give this show commercial potential.
So for this first version of the show, come to simply have a good time. (I’m mostly a story person myself, and I had a blast…)
Pretty Sad White Girls ***
When I’m not reviewing FringeNYC, I cover comedy; and one of my most joyful discoveries on that beat this year was Pretty Sad White Girls. Back in March I wrote “Lisa Bettencourt & Jillian Schiralli are a comedic musical duo who deserve your attention. They combine witty original lyrics with beautiful harmonies, hitting notes that may make you happy for days afterward. If you love Garfunkel and Oates, then you’ll probably also adore these superb artists working a similar folk comedy vein.” While the songs—both the music & lyrics are written by wondrously talented rising star Lisa Bettencourt—are still top-notch, Jillian recently got married and dropped out of the group. Her brand new replacement, Katie Emerson, is a skilled theatrical actress with a beautiful voice, but—to my eye—is still in the process of figuring out how she “fits” as half of a comedy singing duo. Also, the banter between songs doesn’t always quite hit the mark; and at 50 minutes, the show feels too short. (Then again, “it left me wanting more” is as much a compliment as a knock…) So I absolutely recommend this show. I just feel that, with further development, it could rise to a **** rating; and it wouldn’t at all surprise me if it becomes increasingly greater as the festival goes on.
Eulalia: A Bedtime Story ***
Infanta Eulalia, born in 1864. was the youngest daughter of Queen Isabella II of Spain; and, as this marvelous solo show details, she struggled with the responsibilities of royalty, and the limitations placed on women, pitted against her desire to live freely and at her full potential.
While the theme is compelling, what makes this show truly special are writer/actress Sarah Cuneo‘s smart, thoughtful choices for her script, and her sensitive, passionate, graceful performance. For example, you won’t find many one-woman shows that include image clusters; but this production starts with an adorable parrot strangled for saying the wrong thing, then at its mid-point has a king choke to death in mid-sentence, and near the end has a woman toying with a black scarf around her neck as if it was a noose. While Cuneo (who is a clever Lupton) never calls attention to such patterns, the fight to speak one’s mind comes up repeatedly and effectively; and the gentle ways women combat authority is conveyed in Cuneo’s soft, loving gestures and dancer-like movements.
I’d rate this 45-minute gem higher if it simply delivered an ending worthy of all that had come before it. However, an extreme choice the historical Eulalia made is—to my eye—inadequately examined (for example, I was left wondering if postpartum depression played a part); and a song Cuneo concludes with is, while lovely, oddly anachronistic. So I’d recommend a bit more work on the conclusion.
That said, if you want to experience a beautifully written show about a woman’s demand for freedom and dignity performed by one of the finest actresses in the festival, come see Sarah Cuneo—who, to my eye, is a star in the making.
This 40-minute drama, thoughtfully and finely scripted by Ally Sass, provides us with a swift punch to the gut and then plenty of time to brood about it afterwards.
On the logline level, it’s about two former high school students who run into each other years later…by getting stuck in a porn shop during a snowstorm.
Thematically, it ties in with recent national news; but to say more would give too much away.
Actors Joseph Dalfonso and Trevor van Uden are both terrific; and so is the direction by Elizabeth Callahan.
The ending is exasperating, but intentionally so. (And anyway, endings are hard…)
Again, I can’t say much more without spoiling the plot; but this is good. See it.
’33 (a kabarett) ***
When the President of the United States regularly attacks the press, and now appears to be trying to cover up the brutal premeditated murder of a Washington Post journalist, this one-man show about 1933 Germany couldn’t be more much timely. An impresario of a once-thriving cabaret returns to its ruins after all his stars have presumably been imprisoned or killed by the government to stifle their diverse and unpredictable voices. To honor their memories, and also the audience brave enough to risk their lives by even being there, he embodies those who’ve been lost—a song-and-dance man, a showgirl, a clown, and more—and performs their greatest hits to keep their spirits alive. Writer/performer Bremner Duthie was inspired by the sad history of the Eldorado Club in Berlin, which was closed by Hermann Goering and then turned into a Nazi headquarters, This production set at the start of Hitler’s rise to power is disturbing and haunting, but also quite artful. Please note it’s not for every taste; to get a feel for whether it might be a fit for yours, please click here.
Opening Night ***
Sharp sketch comics Kristina Grosspietsch & Devin O’Neill (who perform regularly at NYC’s Magnet Theatre) play various duos experiencing the opening night of a Broadway show, including the director & stage manager, stagehands, audience members, and most notably the production’s stars: Hollywood divas who are twins trying to make their comeback…while continually feuding. For example, a memorable show-stopper consists of the sisters performing “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” while both refusing to take the male role… It’s a bit of fluff, but it’s also fearless female comedy fun.
As you might intuit from the photo above, Nina Mozes is an extremely warm, playful, and charming comic and storyteller. And she pretty much has to be to make enjoyable a series of horror stories about doctors who are clueless and the opposite of helpful when being presented with Mozes’ symptoms.
Based on my own research and personal experience, the greater tragedy is that what Mozes has isn’t rare; it’s a silent epidemic that tortures millions. That doctors are still essentially unaware of this, and as likely to make things worse than better, is arguably scandalous.
That said, I’m coming from a very outside-the-mainstream place—e.g., my (non-medical) suggestions include going organic and vegan (no meat, eggs, cheese, etc.), avoiding GMO such as corn and canola oil, avoiding gluten, and avoiding toxins; and consuming things like Maine wild blueberries, garlic, cilantro, cat’s claw, L-Lysine, red marine algae, Hawaiian spirulina, nettle leaf, licorice root, lemon balm, liquid zinc, and vitamins C and B12 daily. (And possibly Nature-Throid for any hypothyroidism, which is more likely to be effective than T4-only pills such as Synthroid.)
Once I realized the condition Mozes probably has—which I guessed very early on, but still remains undiagnosed by her physicians—I lost the ability to purely enjoy the production for what it was and mostly sat fuming about all the mistakes her doctors made.
I’m therefore neither recommending or panning this show, because I can’t really be objective about it. But I can heartily recommend Mozes as a performer; and if you have any issues with your thyroid, EBV, or a myriad of mysterious symptoms that doctors either can’t identify or tell you are incurable, you’ll probably relate to what she has to share.
Hillary Clinton’s Song Cycle: Witness **½
Random songs about the heartbreak of Hillary’s 2016 election loss can’t help but come across as dated, especially a month before the 2018 midterms. That said, this is well-intentioned, and a few of the songs are especially memorable, such as the lovely Walk in the Woods (click to listen) and the musical plea to President Trump “Please, Won’t You Come to an Unfortunate End?” Also, keyboardist and co-singer Deidre Rodman Struck is superb—frankly, outshining the writer & lead singer who plays Hillary—and is reason enough to come experience this folk cabaret. Here’s hoping Struck goes on from this to create her own show.
Chicago-based sketch duo Olivia Nielsen & Patriac Coakley are skilled performers who understand both comedy and darkness. I wanted to 100% love this, but the writing was simply too hit-or-miss. That said, the sketches that hit the bullseye—such as the “deer in the headlights” bit, or the encounter between the mom and the teen boy who likes conversation—are as fine as anything in the fest. Also, Olivia Nielsen’s expressive face and disciplined character portraits are well worth catching, particularly if you’re a casting director seeking fresh talent.
Grand Rounds **½
The term grand rounds refers to a formal meeting at which physicians share information about patient care and hone clinical reasoning skills. In this show, terrifically organic actress Caroline Luft gives just such a medical lecture…except it takes increasingly odd turns as it veers from the medical to the personal. The script by Chris Adrian has an impressively Aaron Sorkin-like density & pacing—you can actually read it by clicking here. For me, the material starts out strong but doesn’t quite come together. However, you may well feel differently, so please feel encouraged to skim the script and then decide if you’d enjoy having it expertly performed by Luft.
Turing Test **
This science fiction drama started out well, with a really interesting analysis of a sonnet. But then, inexplicably, the writing seemed to lose direction and imagination, with action slowing to a crawl and story logic falling apart. Also, the “surprise twist” is not only evident in minutes, it’s explicit in the show’s title (if you don’t already know, Google it). The only reason I’m not rating this lower is my fondness for the first 25 minutes (out of 100), and the solid performances of all four actors. Still, there are better ways to spend your time.
Devices of Torture *½
I’ve never been—for better or worse—a client of sex workers. But as a book ghostwriter, I’ve worked extensively with dommes, fetish experts, and call girls, so know there are many fascinating stories to tell in this field. Sadly, almost none of them make their way into this poorly scripted and badly directed play, which consists of a hodgepodge of scenes that individually fail to provide insights, depth, or even simple entertainment, and then add up to even less.
The primary rays of light amidst the gloom are Olivia Jampol (above, third from the left), the only one of the four actresses who manages to rise above the disappointing material, and whose ability to be consistently interesting is the main reason I didn’t walk out; and a scene in which a customer wearing a red “Make America Great Again” cap asks to be punished for his vote in 2016. The domme responds, “I think you’ll find several people here willing to beat the shit out of you. Or you can walk out in that hat and get a free beating from any New Yorker who sees you.”
The latter is nicely put. But overall this show is itself a device of torture, and you can probably role-play a better one on your own.
After Burn *
I was looking forward to this, figuring one couldn’t go wrong with a show “based on interviews with combat soldiers returning from deployment in Iraq in 2005.” But while the source material may be authentic, the resulting play comes across as a boring, over-the-top soap opera. Even worse, the cast provides shockingly wooden performances (a notable exception being Leif Steinert, who effortlessly steals every scene he’s in, but doesn’t appear nearly often enough…). It’s hard to imagine how this production went so wrong. But if you’re seeking a thoughtful and well-executed play about US soldiers and PTSD, avoid engagement with this one.
Friday 10/12-Sunday 10/28 (plus outer borough shows 10/1-10/31): My favorite annual NYC event is the New York International Fringe Festival, which has grown to become a major force in New York theatre…and an absolutely wonderful experience for anyone who loves vibrant live shows. The largest multi-arts festival in North America, this 21st annual FringeNYC offers around 80 productions running from October 12th through October 28th at its primary hub in the West Village. In addition, venues in Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island will be hosting FringeNYC-affiliated shows during the entire month of October. FringeNYC productions run the gamut, including theatrical comedy, theatrical drama, musical, opera, sketch, improv, dance, solo, puppetry, clowning, performance art, and children’s. I won’t be doing my usual comprehensive coverage this go-round (am juggling a lot of professional balls right now), but will provide some guidance as the fest goes on: FringeNYC 2018
You can find the vast majority of notable NYC live comedy shows by using the links below to explore the schedules of the following top NYC comedy venues:
Best Inexpensive Stand-Up, Improv, Sketch, and Storytelling
Upright Citizens Brigade Hell’s Kitchen
555 West 42nd Street; 152-seater; one of the most respected comedy showcases in the world; especially strong on improv, sketch, solo shows, and one-act comedic plays; shows free-$12
Upright Citizens Brigade East
153 East 3rd Street; 99-seater; a top comedy venue that focuses more than sister theatre UCB Hell’s Kitchen on stand-up and screenings, and on experimental shows taking big risks; shows free-$12
The PIT Striker (Upstairs) Theatre
123 East 24th Street; 88-seater; a top venue that’s a powerful rival of UCB, and often surpasses UCB when blending comedy with music and/or theatricality; shows free-$20
The PIT Loft
154 West 29th Street; 50-seater; the third of The PIT theatres, located separately on the West side, hosts a wide range of comedy, but is especially effective as a home for intimate solo and/or theatrical shows; free-$20
Best NYC Stand-Up Comedy Clubs
NYC Stand-Up Open Mics & Improv Jams
If you want stage time, you can find one or more stand-up open mics virtually any night at Manhattan’s The PIT, Eastville Comedy Club, and Stand Up NY Comedy Club, and at Queens LIC’s The Creek and Astoria Queens’ QED.
In addition, at the East Village’s UCB East you can typically find a stand-up open mic Thursdays at 6:00 pm, an improv jam Wednesdays at 11:15 pm, and a rare bring-your-own-group improv/sketch open stage Sundays at 11:00 pm. And in Chelsea, The Magnet offers an improv jam on Wednesdays at 6:00 pm, and a rare musical improv jam on Tuesdays at 6:00 pm.
All of the venues above typically provide you the stage time either for free or for $5.
There are also numerous other open mics throughout the city. For a more comprehensive list, please visit FreeMicsNYC.
Special Thanks to Mindy and Anya
From legendary NYC comedy site Brooklyn Vegan: Thank God for Hy Bender’s religiously updated show bible Best New York Comedy (and HyReviews.com). He is literally the only person in NYC providing daily summaries of what’s happening comedy-wise. It must be exhausting keeping that monster of a website alive. It is your daily comedy itinerary and it scares me how on top of his shit this guy is.
From comedy & rock goddess Lane Moore (host of smash hit Tinder Live; author of How to be Alone; lead singer of Brooklyn band It Was Romance): Hy Bender lives and breathes comedy. He knows what he’s talking about. Listen.
Please feel encouraged to reach out to tell me about comedy shows, provide feedback on my cross-genre short story anthology Ghosts on Drugs, hire me to develop your book or screenplay (please visit BookProposal.net or HyOnYourScript.com), or for any other reason by emailing me at email@example.com.