Nobody needs to tell Joe Iconis he’s going places — he knows. “I’ve got lots of things to do,” crows the songwriter during the opening number of “Things to Ruin” — and almost none of those things have been done by his predecessors. There’s the requiem for the classmate-turned-porn starlet, the dodge ball lament and “The War Song,” which has to be heard to be believed. So this is for everyone who’s not Joe Iconis: He’s going places. “You’ve never seen hell that’s as fresh as mine,” his cast bellows at the set’s finish, and they’re right, this guy is something new.
But what fresh hell is this, exactly? Well, it’s a welcome interruption to the Off Broadway musical scene: a marathon 19-song concert-show at the Zipper Factory packed with what sound like snippets from full-length musicals. They might be — Iconis has written several shows, but none that have landed him a full-blown Off Broadway production yet, except for “The Plant That Ate Dirty Socks,” which was part of a free kids’ theater program this summer.
“Things to Ruin” is not perfect; some of the pop songs are 4F for musical theater duty, and the actory setpieces in the production could use some understatement. But “Things to Ruin” has Iconis’ lyrical ingenuity to recommend it — like Ben Folds or Joe Jackson, Iconis seems hell-bent on finding all the commonly shared emotional moments that nobody else has yet set to music.
Take “The Cicada Song,” for example, one of those insect p.o.v. rock anthems we’ve all grown so tired of lately. “Got stimulation coursing through my bones,” sing Lance Rubin and Sarah Glendening (do cicadas have bones?). ” ‘Cause I killed something smaller/and I screwed something bigger/now I’m hopped up on blood and pheromones.” And the cast looks it, too — in fact, everyone is getting a charge out of this song, as it swings from the staccato verses to the swaying, cigarette-lighter-friendly chorus.
It’s so much fun that it’s a little overwhelming — “transporting” is probably the best word, since the quality of the songs makes you briefly forget that you and 200-some other people are crammed into bucket seats and van benches in a very hot room.
The show feels appropriate for the Zipper Factory, which looks like it was thrown together quickly using whatever happened to be available. The production has a similarly slapdash quality: Theactors show up in club gear (two of the girls appear to have insulted costumer Michelle Eden Humphrey somehow), grinding and spinning furiously as they perform, eclipsing at least one song, the gorgeous “Helen.”
But the cast is so convinced we’re all having as much fun as they are, it’s hard not to give in and prove them right.
The occasional sloppiness wouldn’t even be apparent without the contrast of Iconis himself. Only Iconis appears to have applied every single brain cell, every song or show he’s ever seen, to this performance. Who else could write “The War Song,” an angry teenager’s upbeat ditty about going to war for all the wrong reasons? Or “The Guide to Life” (Iconis sings this himself, sadly), which sounds like a number from the 2045 musical version of “Glengarry Glen Ross”?
For every song that sounds a little conventional, there are two that sound like a bet Iconis won (“I’ll give you 50 bucks if you can write a good song about your friends going to the bar and not calling you”).
What makes the production work is everyone’s total lack of apology. “You ain’t never heard nothin’ like this shit here!” the cast roars at the end, and it’s true: Try to compare Iconis’ sound to someone else and you’ll just end up frustrated. He’s clearly out to win at this whole musical theater thing, and his songs are so smart and catchy that it’s impossible to begrudge him his barely masked annoyance at not having hit the bigtime already.