* published on Aug 2, 2012 in THE EDGE
“The Last Smoker In America” is lighting up the stage at the Westside Theatre/Upstairs. The plot pits beleaguered Phyllis, a working wife and mom, against an increasingly rigid society full of anti-smoking, Big Brother robots. Phyllis is an endangered species, aka the last smoker in the very regulated society known as America.
Phyllis and Ernie live in suburbia somewhere; you know this because there is a big kitchen, and a back yard. The set, by Charlie Corcoran, is wonderful as it allows the four characters to emerge dancing with great moves from choreographer AC Ciulla, and to use kitchen appliances as mythical or dream characters through out the musical.
Joining the wife and her rocker husband is a teenage son who is laced with prescription drugs, which we can only guess are for extreme ADHD as he is wonderfully off the wall. Relative newcomer Jake Boyd plays Jimmy, and this Boyd can sing, dance and act. He does a show-stopper called “Gangster,” where he raps about wanting to be black and a star. His pants hang so low they must be wired on — and this is only one great costume among many myriad, stunning outfits by Michael McDonald, (no, not the blue-eyed singer).
Add to the mix a Jesus-loving, black lady neighbor, Pam, who is a Janus-faced goddess whose personality and voice morph from simpering sweet to a deep Mephistophelian profoundo. As Pam, Farah Alvin rivets you when she is on stage. Her talent is epic whether she is playing the neighbor or inhabiting a dream sequences as an Irish dancer, or as part of the Osmond family. As I mentioned, those appliances open and fantasy characters emerge, belting out musical numbers, each crazier and raunchier than the next.
The music is by Peter Melnick and although you don’t go home, (in my case, by bike), humming or singing the tunes loudly, it is still interesting music and it gives the wildly talented cast a chance to strut their stuff. The book and lyrics are witty, dirty and politically to the left, and penned by Bill Russell, (no, not the former Celtics NBA star), the guy who wrote the lyrics for the Tony nominated “Sideshow.”
I like swearing and off-center humor, but I could see that some folks were squirming in their seat during the song called, “I Wanna Call You…” Ernie blasts this tune when wife Phyllis returns a year after abandoning her home after learning her husband and two-faced Pam are having an affair. (She also was being hunted for being a smoker, and I think Pam turned her in).
Ernie belts out that he wants to call his wife the C word but instead he will settle for a rafter of other intense insults ranging from dick weed, to asshole, to bitch. That chorus, “I Wanna call You…” is chanted over and over as Ernie rails at his wife. Pam finally intervenes, reminding him that River Dancing is the best medicine for anger management. This necessitates the Irish jig number, where Pam bursts from the kitchen stove in full Kelly green spangles and tap shoes.
If all of this sounds exhausting, it is really good fun and runs a very well air-conditioned 90 minutes. There were great peals of laughter from the majority in the audience. The pacing of the play is great, all due to the direction by Andy Sandberg. I thought it was Andy Samberg from “Saturday Night Live,” but this young Yalie director seems to have a real feel for comic pacing.
This is a summer puff piece, a place to hang up the worries of the election, global warming and your dwindling income and just laugh at how silly we are as humans, with our addictions and desires and attempts to control ourselves and others.
“The Last Smoker in America” enjoys an extended run at the Westside Theatre/ Upstairs, 407 West 43 Street. For info or tickets, call 212-315-2244 or visit westsidetheatre.com/