Bob Epstein’s “Clean” may not be a masterpiece, but the play does have flashes of comic charm. A free-for-all crime caper that parodies everything from spoiled little rich girls to the U.S. military, the show unleashes hundreds of gags, and enough of them stick to suggest Epstein — who works by day as an entertainment lawyer — is a writer of promise. Unfortunately for him, this production does only partial justice to his potential.
The play is best served by its designers. Costumer Katherine Hampton Noland, for instance, quickly lets us know we will be dealing with broad comic types. Fescue (John Kudan) — a Vietnam vet whom the Army orders to spy on young heiress Digby (Sarah Viccellio) — wears either undersized camouflage shirts or ridiculously large coats as he tries to tail the lass on her Long Island Railroad trip to the Hamptons.
The wardrobe suits an oddball character who bumbles as a detective but happily recalls winning a military competition for standup comics.
Sarah Pearline’s sparse sets and Katy Tucker’s video projections also help make the play a home for random humor. When Digby boards the train, male and female blow-up dolls represent most of her fellow passengers. And when she lists the unlikely self-help books she’s been reading — including “Ventriloquism for Dummies” — we see all their covers projected on a large screen.
Add in Timothy Cramer’s sound design of bodily noises, and you certainly get irreverence.
Epstein’s throwaway gags match the spirit of the design. But in between jokes he never quite fashions a comprehensible plot. Even auds who pay close attention may not understand why Fescue spies on Digby. There’s something about the girl’s father (Albert Insinnia) being framed for bootlegging millions of CDs, an FBI agent (Cherene Snow) who poses as a Jamaican train conductor to gather intelligence, and a robot with eyes and hands that works in a CD factory for an evil businessman (Karl Jacob).
Nonsense? Sure. Especially when the action transfers to Mars. But “Clean” could be amiable foolishness if the cast were adept with screwball timing and delivery. To a thesp, however, they perform as though they mistrust the material. Words are over-emphasized to make sure we don’t miss the clever bits. Gestures are so broad they suggest actors trying to be funny, rather than characters responding to their environment.
Since they’re universal, these strained perfs may have been what director Christopher Maring wanted, even though they result in clunky pacing. Surely, however, he did not instruct the actors to forget their lines. Yet at the performance reviewed, almost every cast member was guilty of multiple slips. No play, no matter how unpolished, can be fairly showcased without more commitment than that.