Ars Nova is known for bringing us the marvelous and experimental, pushing boundaries of genre and theatricality. Their latest presentation, "Eager to Lose", is no different, leading us down into the sultry world of burlesque with a smile and a song. Carefully crafted over two years by directors Wes Grantom and Portia Krieger in conjunction with writer Mathew-Lee Erlbach and burlesque vixen extraordinaire Tansy, the show is an extravagant, salacious, and titillating ride.
The theatre has been entirely transformed into the legendary Tim Tam Room, a sizzling burlesque lounge straight out of 1940s New York. One of the production’s greatest strengths is its ability to ensconce the audience in the world of its players, instantly transporting us back in time. Mark Erbaugh’s scenic design intimately details every corner of the space, while Tilly Grimes’ extravagant and sexy costume design is a feast for the eyes, as every burlesque number grants the audience new and marvelous visual treats. The effect is dazzling and instantly believable.
The performance begins as an actual burlesque show, led by the handsome MC (John Belman). In its delicate balance between tongue-in-cheek humor and sexy strip teases, the show is reminiscent of a very different era. Ars Nova sits not far from the many sticky strip clubs around Times Square: the burlesque numbers throughout the show are a reminder of a time when curves were erotic, performance was truly scintillating, and laughter and lust were equally exciting.
Yet the show is interrupted when Tansy reveals that she is departing the Tim Tam Room to pursue her dreams after Friends’ star David Schwimmer offered to take her burlesque show around the world. The play is filled with many such anachronistic pop culture references, which are utilized to great comic effect; likewise, the stylized language is peppered with contemporary expressions. We accept the mélange of jazz-age glitz and modern bacchanalia instantly, and this is again one of the show’s great strengths.
Tansy’s departure sets the world of the Tim Tam Room spinning as MC realizes he is madly in love with Tansy and dancers Trixie and Glinda must fight over who will take control of the club. What ensues is a plot of Shakespearean proportions with misguided love notes, cross-dressing, mistaken identity, murder, and madness, all in the quest for true love. Beautiful burlesque numbers are woven throughout the narrative, which moves at a whip-cracking pace.
The language is, for the most part, made up entirely of rhyming couplets, which adds to the Jacobean quality of the production. Yet it is also the production’s one shortcoming: Erlbach is, alas, not quite an Elizabethan poet and the rhymes often felt forced and awkward, as if he were driving more for the rhyme at the end of the line than exploring an organic, inherent musicality in the language. Jokes that revolved around the difficulty or awkwardness of finding a rhyme seemed trite and uncomfortable for the actors and oftentimes the rhythm of the language was grating. The moments when the actors slipped back into more contemporary dialogue actually moved the show along more effectively and were more amusing.
Yet the fun of the entire production and the aplomb of the actors overcame this one chink in the show’s glittering armor. Tansy is simply exquisite, both as bodacious dancer and bright ingénue. Behlman is the stalwart example of comic brilliance and manly fragility, while Walton and Yen as Glinda and Trixie are delightful to watch. The show’s standout, however, is Richard Saudek as Peeps. His unbelievable physical characterization of this peculiar character is nothing short of remarkable. His completely silent three-minute monologue is a piece of physical storytelling the likes of which I have not seen since the late, great Marcel Marceau. He lights up the stage with greater brilliance than all the dizzying lights and sequins of the Tim Tam Room itself.
What is most entertaining and delightful about this production is the extraordinary sense of fun that is carried throughout. The performers seem to be so enjoying themselves that we cannot help but find a similar level of pleasure. Any production that inspires the amount of laughter, whoops, wolf-whistles, sighs, and catcalls that this little show did is surely worth its weight in glittering, gilded, tantalizing gold.
Performances of "Eager to Lose" continue through November 8. Check out our full event listing here: https://stagebuddy.com/listingdetail.php?lid=14471