Federal snoops offer lusty help for the lovelorn

Appearing in The NSA’s Guide to Sex and Love are (from left): Scott Clay as Chuck, Alanna G. Rex as Daisy, Colleen Dunne as Gabrielle and Scott Douglas Wilson as Tom (photo by Michelle Diceglio)
Appearing in The NSA’s Guide to Sex and Love are (from left): Scott Clay as Chuck, Alanna G. Rex as Daisy, Colleen Dunne as Gabrielle and Scott Douglas Wilson as Tom (photo by Michelle Diceglio)

By Richard Ades

The NSA’s Guide to Sex and Love has one big problem: the script. Don Zolidis’s would-be satire is a leaden flight of fancy that hops from one topic to the next with all the finesse of an oversized sledge hammer.

Partially making up for this weakness is the fact that it’s sexy as hell, particularly as it’s staged in MadLab’s world-premiere production. Working under Stephen Woosley’s direction, the seven-member cast eagerly throws itself into all manner of seductions, fantasies and other erotic situations.

The actors’ energy is particularly impressive considering what they have to work with. It’s easy to be committed to a quality script, but it takes guts to commit yourself to this hit-or-mostly-miss collection of jokes and set pieces.

Sometimes the punchlines come and go before we can figure out what their point was. When the National Security Agency proclaims that ferret owners tend to become suicide bombers, are we supposed to interpret this as a knock at ferret owners or at the government’s flawed methods of data analysis? Who knows?

Adding to the confusion is an overall framework that can only be described as “stream of consciousness”—or, more accurately, “stream of unconsciousness.” After introducing itself as a “TED Talk” led by NSA representatives Tom and Gabrielle (Scott Douglas Wilson and Colleen Dunne), the play jumps around among such topics as hooking up, marriage and gay sex.

The weird premise is that the NSA wants to use its data to improve citizens’ love lives. It then proceeds to help pair up two couples: Dan (Casey May) with Alana (Laura Spires), and Daisy (Alanna G. Rex) with Chuck (Scott Clay). Assistance is provided by the silent Agent Lance (Lance Atkinson).

Dunne and Wilson work the hardest as Gabrielle and Tom, who fiercely defend the importance of NSA espionage when they’re not sniping at each other over gender issues. May and Spires are more low-key as Dan, a man afflicted by awkward come-ons and premature ejaculation, and Alana, the woman he sets his sights on.

As the other lovebirds, Clay nicely underplays the frumpy Chuck while Rex effortlessly exudes class as Daisy—perhaps too effortlessly in terms of projection, as some of her lines were barely audible at Thursday’s preview performance. The odd couple is fun to watch during escapades such as their attempt to spice up their love life by playing characters from Game of Thrones.

Brendan Michna’s set design mostly consists of a bed, a sofa and several large, hanging discs that can be lit up at opportune moments. Jonathan Calig’s slide show augments the action by projecting information supposedly provided by the NSA.

Though political satire is obviously Zolidis’s main aim, the play delves nearly as much into the politics of gender. The latter subject is attacked with slightly more subtlety than the former, but with little more originality. In the playwright’s view, men are as simple-minded as they are single-minded, while women are devoted to two things: relationships (starting them) and chores (getting men to do them). Few laughs result from such musty observations.

On the other hand, viewers in the proper frame of mind may well get a libidinous lift from the couples’ more carnal interactions. That makes the play, for all its flaws, a nice choice for date night. Just remember to leave the kids at home.

The NSA’s Guide to Sex and Love continues through April 9 at MadLab Theatre and Gallery, 227 N. Third St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Tickets are $15, $13 students/seniors, $10 members. 614-221-5418 or madlab.net.

Gamblers take a chance on romance in Loesser musical

Playing gamblers in Guys & Dolls are (from left): Bradley Davis Barbin, Kent Stuckey (Benny Southstreet), Todd Covert (Nathan Detroit), Derryck Menard and Ryan Kopycinski (Nicely Nicely) (photo by Jared Saltman)
Admiring a wad of cash in Guys & Dolls are (from left): Bradley Davis Barbin, Kent Stuckey, Todd Covert, Derryck Menard and Ryan Kopycinski (photo by Jared Saltman)

By Richard Ades

Guys & Dolls opened on Broadway in 1950 and subsequently won the Tony for best musical. I can only see that as a sign of how much society’s tastes have changed over the intervening decades.

Composer/lyricist Frank Loesser’s songs include the classic Luck Be a Lady and the infectious Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat. But they also include several unmemorable tunes and Sue Me, which combines a tender melody with the puzzling lyrics “So sue me, sue me, what can you do me?” Say what?

In short, Guys & Dolls is a mixed bag. And at 66 years of age, it’s a very dusty mixed bag. Adapted by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows from short stories by Damon Runyon, it’s set in a quaintly old-fashioned version of New York’s underworld (dubbed “Runyonland”) where all the women are “dolls” and all the men are gamblers with hearts of gold.

Faced with the thankless task of resuscitating this chestnut for Gallery Players, director Mark Mann starts off by filling the four leading roles with likable and talented performers:
• Todd Covert as Nathan Detroit, a perpetually struggling gambler
• Amy Silver Judd as Miss Adelaide, a night club singer and Nathan’s longtime fiancée
• Kristin Yarger as Sarah Brown, head of a Salvation Army-like mission that tries to reform local “sinners”
• Christopher Storer as Sky Masterson, a traveling gambler and confirmed bachelor

The two women offer particularly distinct portrayals, Judd’s Adelaide coming off as a good-natured floozy while Yarger’s Sarah is sincere and grounded. Of the two men, Covert’s Nathan is slightly nicer, but both he and Storer’s Sky strike us as basically decent sorts.

As I said, all four of the leads are likable—maybe to a fault. If their characters had a bit more edge to them, their romantic intrigues might seem less blandly sweet.

Making up for the lack of dramatic tension, all four performers sing well and often beautifully under Bryan Babcock’s musical direction. An eight-piece band provides the big-sounding and mostly tuneful accompaniment.

Nathan Detroit (Todd Covert) and his longtime fiancee Miss Adelaide (Amy Silver Judd) in the Gallery Players production of Guys & Dolls (photo by Jared Saltman)
Nathan Detroit (Todd Covert) has an uncomfortable moment with his longtime fiancee, Miss Adelaide (Amy Silver Judd) in the Gallery Players production of Guys & Dolls (photo by Jared Saltman)

The plot centers on the illegal craps game Nathan is trying to set up for local and visiting gamblers. Short on the cash he needs to rent a space, he tricks Sky into betting he can lure the high-minded Sarah to accompany him to Havana. Sky leaps to the challenge by visiting Sarah’s mission and pretending he needs her help to repent from his evil ways.

Peripherally involved in the goings-on are Denae Sullivan as one of Sarah’s fellow missionaries; Ryan Kopycinski and Kent D. Stuckey as Nathan’s colleagues Nicely and Benny; Brad Barbin as police Lt. Brannigan; and Rick Cohen as Big Jule, a gat-packing gangster from Chicago.

Benny and various other gamblers are distinguished mainly by their colorful and era-appropriate suits, which were designed by Debbie Hamrick. The only one who gets a chance to stand out is Kopycinski’s Nicely, who helms the show’s most entertaining musical number, Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat.

Danielle Mann’s choreography is generally low-key except for a few acrobatic moves performed during the opening strains of Luck Be a Lady. Jon Baggs’s spare scenery is efficiently designed, keeping scene changes short.

Unfortunately, some of the scenes themselves tended to drag on opening night. A little tightening would help to keep things moving in between songs.

I’ve used terms such as “nice” and “likable” to describe the characters, and those are good descriptions of the production as a whole. If you’re in a mellow mood, that might be enough. But considering the show demands nearly three hours of your time, you may find yourself wishing for something more.

Gallery Players will present Guys & Dolls through March 13 at the Jewish Community Center, 1125 College Ave., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25 ($20 for JCC member), $23 for ages 60-plus ($18 for JCC members), $15 for students/children. 614-231-2731 or www.jccgalleryplayers.org.