What to see at FIT: ‘Lady Bright,’ Tennessee

The offerings at this year’s Festival of Independent Theatres are making it one of the best yet.

The fest opened with the double bill of Upstart’s Wasp and Second Thought’s Bob Birdnow, the former an absurdist charmer and the latter a one-man tour-de-force from actor Barry Nash.  Two more plays this weekend have similar credentials.

WingSpan mounts a double bill of short-short plays. One, Perfect Analysis Given by a Parrot by Tennessee Williams, is like Streeetcar Lite: Two ageing Southern ladies (Nancy Sherrard and Cindee Mayfield, pictured) who dress like they were trained in fashion at RuPaul’s Drag U, troll the bars of Chicago looking for conventioneers they can bed. In typically Williams style, they mask their lack of morals behind a veneer of moral indignation and ethical relativism, bathed in film of self-delusion and exaggerated gentility. It’s a bitter, catty pas-de-deux with laughs — more laughs, at least, than its companion piece, John Guare’s The Loveliest Afternoon of the Year. A sort of romantic take on Albee’s Zoo Story, it follows a couple who meet in a park under less-than-ideal circumstances and come to a halting understanding about their relationship. There’s not much there there, as you might say — neither funny nor poignant, but just quirky.

So goes the absurdism; the one performance that rival’s Nash’s is surely Larry Randolph’s in ONe Thirty Productions’  The Madness of Lady Bright. Randolph plays an ageing drag queen, surrounded by the memories of his once-glorious romances and catalogue of friends. Now old and alone, he’s dressing up like Bernadette in Priscilla: Haggard, defeated, still craving affection.

This early play in the gay culture movement is a prickly, tender and sad, but also phenomenally realistic and well-realized portrait of growing old and alone, whether gay or straight. And Randolph’s resourceful, exquisitely wrought performance, full of tarnished dignity, sells it. This is a show — a performance — not to be missed.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

REVIEWS: What to see at FIT

The Festival of Independent Theatres got off to an auspicious start last weekend (see below), and continues for a few more. Tonight, Lanford Wilson’s The Madness of Lady Bright, pictured — sometimes called the first major work of gay theater — follows an aging drag queen as she puts on her makeup, perhaps for the last time. It shows at 8 p.m., and also Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 5 p.m. Also tonight at 8 is a double bill from WingSpan: Tennessee Williams’ A Perfect Analysis Given by a Parrot and John Guare’s The Loveliest Afternoon of the Year. It also plays Saturday at 5 p.m.

But some very good shows have already opened. Upstart Productions launched it with WASP, an absurdist comedy from Steve Martin (yes, that one) about the Protestant nuclear family: Disaffected dad (Ted Wold), neurotic wife (Diane Casey Box), confused son (Christopher Eastland) and airhead daughter (Nicole Stewart). The style — flat, crazed, silly, disturbing — fits perfects the nonsense, such as the voices mom hears because her husband can’t be bothered to look at her. Jell-O mold desserts, sexual frustration, 1950s-ish ignorance and a host of other stereotypes of American suburban culture are deliciously skewered. (Also plays Saturday at 5 p.m., July 28 at 8 p.m. and Aug. 6 at 8 p.m.)

Very different — but in many ways more compelling — is Second Thought Theatre’s Bob Birdnow’s Remarkable Tale of Human Survival and the Transcendence of Self, a world premiere from local playwright Eric Steele (he runs the Kessler as well) as the second play directed by Lee Trull (he premiered as a director earlier this year with Dying City). One-armed local celeb Bob Birdnow gives a motivational speech to a Midwestern sales convention recounting how, in fact, he lost his limb. For 50 minutes, actor Barry Nash holds your attention transfixed in this captivating monologue, full of drama and tension and beautiful imagery, all with limited movement. It’s a tour-de-force performance. (Also plays Saturday at 2 p.m., July 29 at 8 p.m. and Aug. 4 at 8 p.m.)

—  Arnold Wayne Jones