No Laughing Matter

Clichés and lame jokes bury Personals Uncut

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Before the Internet, lovelorn folks were consigned to placing personal ads in print publications. But since they had to pay by the word, those compressed pleas for connection often tended to sound bland and generic (i.e., the infamous "I like long walks on the beach" line).

Cyberspace has changed those dynamics, with people now able to share more about themselves. But that's not necessarily a good thing as is shown, albeit inadvertently, in Personals Uncut: The New York Edition, now at Kennedy's at Playhouse Square.

The play reprises its run of a few months ago in the same theater, purporting to show how native New Yorkers, and a couple others from the hinterlands, deal with the modern vagaries of hooking up. However, the vast majority of the comic material here is trite, soggy, or unpleasant. And that makes for a long two hours.

This local production is written, directed, and produced by Jennifer Griffin, a hometown Clevelander who spent some years in N.Y.C. The play itself is a collection of blackouts, most of which are written as Internet ads for the people speaking. These are also "black-ins," since the first line of each vignette is delivered in darkness. If you consider that an omen, don't look for me to dissuade you.

First, let's get the acting out of the way, since there are precious few actual thespians on stage. Those with some stage presence and a modicum of timing — John Busser, Kurt Yue, and in small doses Katherine Weber — are faced with the task of stemming a tide of mediocrity from the eight remaining actors. Those others will go nameless here: a small gift to them.

Second, let's offer auteur Griffin the faint praise she deserves. It's not easy to be a one-man band. The fact that Griffin wrote, directed, and produced this decidedly unfunny comedy deserves a tip of the hat (for chutzpah, if nothing else) followed quickly by a stern warning to never do it again.

The shortcomings of Griffin's work encompass three areas: the writing, the direction, and the production. Short blackout skits may seem easy to compose, but they're devilishly hard to make funny. Every scene has to start fresh, with a new character who has to engage with the audience and amuse in only a few minutes.

Griffin's attempts to accomplish this goal are laughable only in the sense of how far off the mark they are. In the first act, which features men's personals, there's a smelly young guy who's cool with his B.O. and his fondness for smoking blunts. And a guy who fantasizes about naked women. And a yuppie snob who's into Asian chicks. Imagine!

The women's personals in the second act aren't much better, as Griffin trots out the shopworn dating clichés of the spoiled brat, the new-age space cadet, and the brassy Puerto Rican bitch.

Griffin also attempts to fashion a couple dialog scenes, which illustrate another gap in her skill set. Virtually every scene has the same pacing, with the actors delivering their lines in a slow drone with little shape or momentum.

The barebones production is understandable, but at least it might attempt to be accurate. One scene is supposedly played at a "half-circle restaurant booth" when the actors are actually sitting at a square table.

But aside from all these problems, the largest issue Personals Uncut presents is the subtle loathing it seems to harbor for those reaching out to others.

Since no characters are developed beyond their need to deliver formulaic descriptions of themselves or their ideal date, they remain one-dimensional ciphers.

Griffin tries to surmount this at the end by having two nerds we've seen before meet cute at the top of the Empire State Building. If those individuals had been written and portrayed more convincingly, the audience might care a bit about them as they teeter uncertainly above the teeming metropolis.

As it is, however, it's surprising no one yells "Jump!"

About The Author

Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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