Saturday, November 15, 2008

Vice Girl Confidential (Under St. Marks)

BOTTOM LINE: If you want a good laugh, a good time, and you enjoy movies like Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Dick Tracey, other comic book movies, and Saturday Night Live, then you’ll enjoy this production.

Vice Girl Confidential, the title says it right there: you can almost hear the ominous, echoing voice with the pregnant pause, and see the giant “confidential” stamp slam down on the file as you read the words. As one descends the tiny staircase of the underground theatre at Under St. Marks, the feeling that, indeed, this could conceivably be a place of vice, or at least someplace confidential, prevails. Exposed brick peeks through one side of the forty-seat-theatre, only adding to the perfectly seedy atmosphere. The show opens with the sounds of voices, beeps, and boops transmitted over “the wire,” then lights up on a lone figure at a lone desk, in classic noir fashion, there to summarize for the audience what heinous crimes have taken place in this humble burg, and with thinly veiled warning, surmise what dangers lie ahead if the case isn’t cracked. Dun, dun, dunnnn...! Full of clever puns and witty spoof, playwright Todd Michael delivers a good time.

The rest of the story unfolds just as one suspects it would. Bad guys. Bad girls. Good cops. Good cops behaving badly. Bad girls behaving goodly. Shake downs, break downs, take downs, you’re busted! -- OK, so wrong cop-movie reference! (If you didn’t pick up on that one, I highly suggest you brush up on your Eddie Murphy flicks of the 1980s.) Here is a good place to note that Mr. Michael’s play is produced by Horse Trade Theater Group together with Grayce Productions. Grayce Productions deals exclusively with plays that parody the shows and entertainments of the 1930s, '40s, and '50s. So, while my particular attempt at fun-with-movie-references will not be seen in “Vice Girl,” several clever quips of dialogue, stylized phrasing, and distinct blocking are a laugh-out-loud homage to the films, movies, and radio shows of that golden era.

That being said, this is a perfect show for practically all generations...well, within reason. I’m assuming that while children of all ages will enjoy the broad humor, most parents will not enjoy having to explain what a “vice girl” is exactly. And in case you haven’t figured it out yet: it’s a hooker. These girls, in the words of Stella Fontaine, the elusive Madam, played brilliantly by the playwright himself dressed in drag, (another bit that children tend to find entertaining, but adults tend to find it even more so, when done well, which it is here) are “high class, A-Number-One,” but nonetheless they are prostitutes. Now, do not be confused, Vice Girl Confidential is not a children’s show. Mr. Michael must, however, be applauded for the fact that while the play is thoroughly naughty, it is never dirty.

Director, Walter J. Hoffman successfully sprinkles the stage with humorous slapstick. Such as the innocent little sister entering dressed as a very familiar character of innocence or like Charles “Muggsy” Regan, a squealing gangster played with beautiful “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”-weasel-style by Matthew F. Garner, directing his own murderer, “a little to the left, a little more, now up,” to shoot him in the heart before he collapses flat on his face. What Hoffman really does well however, is lacing more subtle whimsy in between the jokes. For example, good guy, played by Thom Brown, D.A. Walter Slade’s breathless line delivery and classic timing. Michael’s amusing vocal inflection. Both Zach Lombardo’s ridiculously funny commitment to creating distinct characters (he plays several) and Jeff Auers convincing portrayal of the villain, Duke Craigie, seem to have leapt right out of the pages of a comic book. These things among other small nods to the genre, such as meticulous male grooming, all create a full and pleasing production.

One particularly deserving moment in the play is thanks to a combination of great dialogue, flawless direction, and a cohesive ensemble when a character delivers the ever so spot-on, pointless, nonsensical, did-she-just-say-something-dirty?-because-if-she-did-I-don’t-think-it made-any-sense,-and-if-she-didn’t-I-still-don’t-thin-it-made-any-sense, line of poetry requisite to detective, pulp, crime drama of the era. I won’t give it away but it was hilarious, and while not the biggest laugh of the show it was the smartest. Here in lies the reason to see Vice Girl Confidential, not only is it full of straightforward laughs but it is full of satisfying laughs too. There is not a whole lot of thinking necessary to enjoy it, but there is just enough to not get bored, or dismiss it. Like a good Mel Brooks movie or Warner Brothers cartoon.

Credit should also be given to the fairly seamless set changes, and beautiful, detailed, costumes and wigs on a shoestring budget. The believability and amusement of this production is due in no small part to costume designer, David L. Zwiers. Excellent discretion was used by Hoffman and Zwiers, which is no easy feat for an off-off-Broadway show.

Mr. Michael, you have found your niche as a producer, writer, and performer. This is a show that one could just easily enjoy with friends as with family. It couples today's sense of humor with that of the 1950s. A duo, spiced with nostalgia, that all can relish. “Who knows what laughter lurks in the hearts of men? Heh-heh-heh-heh-heh-heh-heh! Todd Michael knows...” Vice Girl Confidential is a good time, full of laughs to be shared with loved ones. So head on down to the theatre Under St. Marks, grab a beer, and prepare to be entertained.

(The show comes in at just under one hour, fifteen minutes with no intermission. Performances are held at Under St. Marks (94 St. Marks Place, between 1st Ave. & Ave. A), November 13-15 at 8pm, November 16 at 7pm. Tickets are $18, call SmartTix at 212-868-4444 or visit

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