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Off Broadway Review: ‘Stop Hitting Yourself’

This fitfully funny satire of American materialism has a clever conceit but a postmodern execution that can get wearying.

With:

Thomas Graves, Heather Hanna, Joey Hood, Hannah Kenah, Lana Lesley, E. Jason Liebrecht, Paul Soileau.

Isn’t it just a bit ironic that “Stop Hitting Yourself,” the Rude Mechs’ pointed (if only fitfully funny) satire of American materialism, should be playing in the grand surroundings of Lincoln Center?  To be sure, this transgressive show is tucked away out of sight at the Claire Trow Theater, the LCT3 venue for experimental new work from Young Turks — and where all tix are humanely fixed at a democratic $20.  But standing on the terrace, it’s still within spitting distance of the stylish crowds headed for the opera and the concert halls. 

Not that any Lincoln Center patron would be caught dead in the kitschy costumes designed by Emily Rebholz for the conspicuous consumers in this broad burlesque of a high-society charity function.  Nor could the elegantly redesigned Alice Tully Hall hope to compete with the riotous vulgarity of this show’s setting, a queen’s palace ostentatiously decorated (by set designer Mimi Lien) in the suffocating gold-on-gold style of King Midas.  (Even a gilded naked statue covers his privates with a gold fig leaf.)

The clever conceit of this social parody is that what passes for charity in our avaricious society is just another exercise in competitive greed.  No matter how much they tap-dance around the issue — and there is quite a bit of literal tap-dancing in helmer Shawn Sides’ smartly staged production — this upper-crust crowd just doesn’t get poverty.

What they do get is dressing up for social events like the annual Charity Ball thrown by the Queen (Paul Soileau, be-wigged and bewitching in drag), who uses the occasion to bestow her one good deed of the year.  “I always like to throw parties for a good cause,” she gushes to the assembled hoi polloi.  “Your sappiness is my happiness.”

But, like so many gestures of noblesse oblige — like, let us say, the awarding of grants to needy arts institutions — the Queen’s charitable giveaway is in truth a competitive event that devolves into something of a blood sport for the contestants.  To prime the audience for the competition, the antic company cajoles us into playing a few interactive games, including one that involves real money and seems harmless, until it goes on to illustrate what some people will do for a buck.

There are the usual greedy challengers at the Queen’s ball this year: a shrewd business Magnate (E. Jason Liebrecht), a spoiled-brat Trust Fund Sister (Hannah Kenah), even an Unknown Prince (Joey Hood) who crashes the party, over the objections of a Maid (Heather Hanna) who was once a classics scholar.  But the team of contestants who stand out in this company are a scheming Socialite (Lana Lesley) and the Wildman (Thomas Graves) she captured in the forest.

This Christ-like figure comes to court with a compassionate message — “Renounce your greed.  Sell your ridiculous possessions.  Feed the hungry.  Clothe the poor.  Care for the sick and the elderly” — that isn’t likely to go over with this crowd.  Especially coming from a filthy, smelly, half-naked  hermit.  So the Socialite proceeds to civilize the creature by teaching him how to talk, dress, and tap-dance in polite society.

Like a lot of work composed by several hands, this collaborative effort of the Austin-based theater collective that brought us “The Method Gun” is uneven, to say the least.  The broad concept of the show is the best thing about it.  The post-modern style of execution, not so much.  While it’s painfully funny to see our ambivalent attitudes about personal wealth reflected in a cheesy tap-dance routine, watching characters splashing around in a fountain of real cheese is no fun at all.  And it’s really too bad that this clever company can’t see the difference.

Off Broadway Review: 'Stop Hitting Yourself'

Claire Tow Theater / Lincoln Center; 112 seats; $20 top.  Opened Jan. 27, 2014.  Reviewed Jan. 24.  Running time: ONE HOUR, 90 MIN.

Production:

A Lincoln Center Theater presentation of the Rude Mechs production of a play in one act created by the company and written by Kirk Lynn. 

Creative:

Directed by Shawn Sides.  Sets, Mimi Lien; costumes, Emily Rebholz; lighting, Brian H. Scott; original music & sound, Graham Reynolds; production stage manager, Jeff Hamlin.  

Cast:

Thomas Graves, Heather Hanna, Joey Hood, Hannah Kenah, Lana Lesley, E. Jason Liebrecht, Paul Soileau.

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