Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Riff Raff"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi


by Laurence Fishburne

directed by Craig Houk

Mike “20/20” Leon … Rich Girardi
Billy “Torch” Murphy … Richard Arum
Tony “The Tiger” Lee … Michael Nurse

The following may be read as an S.O.S --- an S.O.T.C., really (“Save Our Theatre Companies”); one of Boston’s most promising theatre companies --- Ubiquity Stage --- is struggling to stay afloat with its current production of Laurence Fishburne’s explosive drama, RIFF RAFF. Whether or not you care for the play’s subject matter is not the issue here; the issue is the threatened life of a still-young theatre company. So many of them are born without fanfare and do indeed rely upon the kindness of strangers or else they’ll simply dissolve in a sea of red. (On the other hand, should established theatres like the Huntington or A.R.T. go into the death throes, it would be the demise of the woolly mammoth all over again --- with them being rescued in the final act.) And now Ubiquity Stage is up on the chopping block --- can audiences attending the few remaining performances of RIFF RAFF save it?

RIFF RAFF’s premise is deceptively simple: two small-time thieves, Mike (“20/20”) and Billy (“Torch”) are hiding out in an abandoned Brooklyn apartment; posing as dealers, they have stolen three kilos of heroin from a drug lord, which resulted in Mike killing one of the middlemen (the drug lord’s nephew). Now on the run, Mike has contacted Tony (“The Tiger”), a former classmate and ex-partner in crime, to come help them out. When Tony arrives and sizes up the situation, RIFF RAFF becomes a gripping study of friends (Mike and Tony) and family (half-brothers Mike and Billy) caught in a many-layered web of addiction, revenge and business is business. Mr. Fishburne, a respected stage and film actor, has written a play with the emphasis on character, not action --- for all its realism, RIFF RAFF is a throwback to the film noirs of the 1940s, with doomed men talking in the shadows while waiting for the other shoe to drop. There are a few bugs in the script: too much talk at the expense of the plot (these men should be planning their escape, not yapping about their pasts), some of the recitatives that link their arias are forced and repetitive, and one solitary gun passes from hand to hand to hand until he who uses it, owns it. Still, Mr. Fishburne has a good ear for tense, salty dialogue with dashes of dark humor for leavening, and I stayed with his unsavory trio to the inevitable conclusion. Is this Mr. Fishburne’s first play? If so, may he write again!

I was told that Mr. Fishburne attended one of the Ubiquity’s performances and declared that of all the productions he has seen of RIFF RAFF thus far, the Ubiquity production scored highest in his opinion. Indeed, much of this production is quite good --- director Craig Houk has cast three distinctive actors who attack their roles like jazz musicians, with Rich Girardi (“Mike”) riffing on the clarinet; Richard Arum (“Billy”), blustery on the drums; and Michael Nurse (“Tony”), slow-plucking on the bass. The Messrs. Girardi and Arum imbue their losers with an oddly likeable (but not loveable) charm --- the buzz-headed Mr. Girardi may slip in and out of his Hispanic characterization; still, he’s amazing with his lightning-fast repartee and body rhythms (his thumbs and pinkies are street-stiff whenever he gestures); Mr. Arum, too, loses his focus now and then but, to be fair, Mr. Fishburne has given him one hell of a challenge: upon entering, Billy is suffering from (a) a bleeding hand; (b) heroin withdrawal; and (c) a full bladder, plus Mr. Fishburne orchestrates Billy’s mood swings in order to lurch the plot forward rather than give us an accurate portrait of cold turkey. However, Mr. Arum owns the most beautiful --- and terrible --- moment of the evening: when Billy finally gets to shoot up, Mr. Arum stiffens in his armchair, arches his body upwards, holds it for a moment, gasps and goes limp --- a dry orgasm; you’ll swear you see the poison sparkling through his veins. There is too much of an age difference between Mr. Girardi and Michael Nurse to convince us that their Mike and Tony were classmates, but said difference lends a touching father-son ambience to their friendship --- and Mr. Nurse is such a warm, personable actor that when Mike declares he trusts Tony wholeheartedly, you believe him.

In terms of production, I’ve only three nits to pick: Mr. Houk’s direction should be tighter, especially with Tony’s character: without drawing attention to himself, Tony is the main reason why Mike and Billy are staying put instead of fleeing, and I only realized that long after the actors had taken their bows. Tony enters with his own bag of surprises, and the major ones must be reflected in his body rhythms and just below his paternal cheeriness --- Mr. Nurse may not have convinced me of his final action, but he did chill me with his cigarette lighter (you’ll have to see for yourself --- nyah!). Secondly, if a character is going to wet his pants onstage, give the actor a hidden water bladder to break open for the desired effect: here, Mr. Alum’s jeans remain Pampers-dry, nor does he act as if he’s done the deed (no picking at his pants legs; no sitting gingerly on the couch, etc.). Finally, this is the second Ubiquity production I’ve seen where the set has been puffed up to fill up the cavernous width of the Mass Art Tower Auditorium, when it should have been scaled down to hem in those three circling men (hasn’t anyone, cast or crew, been inside a Brooklyn brownstone apartment? They’re tiny!).

On the night I attended, I counted close to sixty people in the audience, just enough to give the hard-working cast a small current of electricity to keep them going --- and that was their largest house yet! It would be a double shame if audiences continue to stay away from RIFF RAFF because of its subject matter (it would be BEE-LUTHER-HATCHEE all over again) and the ever-growing Ubiquity Stage having to close up shop as a result. Beantown, the ball is in your court; Pet Brick Productions and The Market Theater have already died in the past year or so, and between apathetic audiences and funding cuts, Ubiquity Stage and others stand in the shadow of the axe. How many more of our smaller theatre companies must go the way of the dodo while the wooly mammoths lumber on?

"Riff Raff" (1-16 November)
Mass Art Tower Auditorium, 621 Huntington Avenue, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 470-5329

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