Curious Theatre Branch

What amazes me most about Curious Theatre writers is the way they mix rich, musical language with morbid, ugly images. No group can wax poetic about rats the way Curious can. No theater is better at turning an ordinary romantic betrayal into an underground, worm-infested odyssey. And no company creates more damaged, dysfunctional characters while simultaneously giving them an aura of beauty.

The one thing Curious couldn’t do in Three Flat Walkup, a team-written play by Beau O’Reilly, Jenny Magnus, and Bryn Magnus, is structure all this poetry into a cohesive drama. Low on forward-moving action, slow to gain momentum, this play promises some excitement in the first act then falls apart in the second.

The problem seems to be that O’Reilly, Magnus, and Magnus haven’t come to a consensus on exactly what this play is all about. Initially, it seems to be an antigentrification play (an appropriate subject given that Curious has to vacate its storefront space on North Avenue because the landlord suddenly raised the rent by $300 a month). Mark Comiskey plays Felch, a lecherous beat generation boho who has gone blind and wants to use his compensation money to rehab a dilapidated, rat-infested three-flat. Felch lusts after anything, from old buildings to money to poetry to sex with either sex. As Felch puts it, he was walking along when suddenly the building spoke in a ghostlike voice, “Rehab me! Rehab me! I’m this darling little waif of a three-flat.”

He brings in Spoon (Spencer Sundell) to assess the work necessary to make the building profitable. Spoon (whose pathetic fetish is killing rats with an ax handle) tells Felch that the building is infested with rats and also informs him that two orphaned sisters live nude in the basement and “come with the building.” Felch can barely contain himself. Nude orphans in the basement!

The two sisters, Ray and Lee, do indeed come with the building. Their Mamo built the three-flat and abandoned them some time ago. Ray (Jennifer Cozzi) is the normal one, and she does wear clothing. Lee (Lisa Stodder), on the other hand, spends all her time buck naked digging a hole in the ground. Ray wants Lee to stop digging and get dressed. Lee wants Ray to “come apart” because she’s wound together too tightly.

By the third scene, it’s clear that this is more than an antigentrification play. But exactly what it is remains to be seen. Two more interesting characters are introduced: Purdy (Ben Rayner), a black-clad, greasy-haired artsy type who “plays a little guitar” and passionately keeps a private journal; and Rawfoot (Marianne Fieber), a tough, Cuervo-drinking rock and roll type who pushes her way into a share of Purdy’s first-floor apartment.

The Curious Theatre bunch are damn good actors. They comfortably assume their oddball characters, playing them without undue force or exaggeration. With so much attention given to character and personality types, it’s a shame that O’Reilly, Magnus, and Magnus don’t give the cast more to do. The entire first act is filled with introductions. Some plot elements are set up: Ray, the normal sister, offers to decontaminate the building in exchange for the third-floor apartment. Felch takes to spying on his tenants along with his friend and lover, poet Allen Ginsberg (O’Reilly). Lee keeps on digging, talking all the while about how Mamo flew off and she’s “digging in.” Spoon chases rats, and Purdy and Rawfoot experience some mildly abrasive roommate situations.

One hopes that in the second act these characters will do more. But two new characters are introduced: lovers Train (Dana Worland) and Sidewalk (Colm O’Reilly). Together they explore the inner depths of their souls. Nevertheless, they have nothing more to do with the action of this play than with the price of tea in China. Five monologues move the play forward. So, fundamentally, in the second act the characters don’t really do anything. They talk about something that was done. And they talk about it in that rich Curious language. You could say the overall effect is like bingeing on flourless chocolate cake. Sure, the first piece is delightful, but each following piece seems heavier and less satisfying–even though the quality hasn’t changed.