In an extended riff on the idea of fiddling while Rome burns, Gotham playwright and Village Voice arts editor Brian Parks imagines a highly charged world of 1930s society in which the willful blindness of the haves toward the have-nots recalls the oblivious decadence of Kander and Ebb’s “Cabaret.” So mannered are the epigrammatic exchanges in helmer Sophie Fletcher’s production of “Imperial Fizz,” it seems even the characters themselves know their Wildean language is a smokescreen for some unspecified apocalypse. Dazzling though the breakneck delivery is, however, the two-hander never rises above its repartee to become a fully fledged play.
Issy van Randwyck and David Calvitto (who starred in last year’s Edinburgh Fringe offering “The Event,” an award-winning piece of meta-theater) appear as a married couple who could be straight out of Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” if it weren’t for the singed fabric at the base of Randwyck’s turquoise gown and the patches of dust on Calvitto’s tuxedo. We don’t know what is going on beyond their drawing room with its endless supply of cocktails — nor do we ever find out — but the intermittent crackle of their Bakelite radio suggests some kind of cataclysm, something even more devastating than the fire that brought an end to their wedding party.
In this way, the ghosts of the 20th century haunt the play. Their barrage of epigrams (“Furs are so lovely once you’ve carved the animal out of them”) is like hyperactive Oscar Wilde. Their desperate attempt to kill time in order to blank out the painful meaninglessness of existence recalls the banter between various Beckett characters. And the ferocious wit and cruel temper of this married couple are straight out of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Calvitto and Randwyck handle the relentlessly punning text with aplomb, banging out the bon mots — which, frequently, are no more than bon mots — with the machine-gun rapidity that characterizes Calvitto’s previous work with Parks. The wit gives them no pleasure, the rows leave them no nearer resolution and their stories are like tales from someone else’s past. Whether they are improvising a rhyming sonnet, singing comic songs to the music on the radio or trading surreal insults (“You are as wrong as a vodka martini”), they are alienated from their own experience.
Impressive and sporadically funny though all this is, the impact is more intellectual than emotional. The punchlines, which frequently appear on a line-by-line basis, fly by too speedily to appreciate, the conceit is too bound up in theater history and the real story too enigmatically told for “Imperial Fizz” to amount to much more than a clever exercise.