I give full credit to any performer willing to take the stage by themselves and try to keep an audience’s attention for the entire show. Intriguingly, “Rent” star Anthony Rapp’s first attempt at this genre, “Without You,” now at New World Stages, proves to be far more involving than comic veteran Colin Quinn’s “Small Talk,” now at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. That said, neither show is snore-inducing nor so startling to prevent your mind from wandering now and then.
Rapp’s 90-minute piece, adapted from his 2006 memoir and seen in various theatrical forms over the past decade or so, looks back on the period in the mid-90s where he finally gains theatrical stardom via the hit musical “Rent” while simultaneously dealing with his mother’s ultimately losing battle with cancer.
Most audiences will come because of the former subject, but the latter one proves more moving (especially since many of us who saw “Rent” in its early days have since struggled with the loss of the parent.) One feels for Rapp, who struggles between honoring his personal commitment with his professional one – a dilemma somewhat complicated by his feeling that his mother has not completely accepted his homosexuality. (In case you’re wondering, Rapp’s allegedly non-consensual encounter with Kevin Spacey, which happened years before the events of this show, is never even mentioned.)
Meanwhile, his recollections of “Rent” focus mostly on his friendship with the show’s composer Jonathan Larson, who died of a sudden aneurysm the day before the show’s Off-Broadway dress rehearsal. Larson’s death obviously affected Rapp deeply, but his memories of their time together seem pretty superficial – not to mention “old hat” nearly 30 years later. Further, there’s very little discussion of his relationship with most of his castmates (only Adam Pascal and Daphne Rubin-Vega get any significant mentions), leaving one with the sense that Rapp believed he was the major star of “Rent.”
Still, the show allows Rapp, in superb voice, to remind us just how brilliant Larson’s score was, even if we only get sections of “What You Own,” “La Vie Boheme,” and “Glory.” However, we do get multiple takes of the anthemic “Seasons of
Love,” though, which resonates strongly in the era of COVID.
And, strangely enough, my favorite musical moment is Rapp’s remarkable rendition of R.E.M’s “Losing My Religion,” which was his audition song for “Rent.” Maybe it’s time for Rapp to do a true cabaret act rather than rehashing the past.
Meanwhile, Quinn has proven himself a master of the solo show in some of his previous theatrical outings, notably “Long Story Short,” which is why it’s relatively disappointing that “Small Talk,” rather casually directed by James Lavell, feels more like a hastily put-together Netflix special.
Relying again on his grumpy New Yorker persona, Quinn tries to connect with the audience as he tackles some pet peeves, most notably how “small talk” has become almost nonexistent in our culture, which he finds almost as damaging as our over-reliance on social media.
Some of his points, as always, are quite savvy, such as this observation: “We haven’t changed, technologically we’ve advanced, but human nature is the exact same. The Seven Deadly Sins, only now they’re digital - Facebook is Envy. Twitter is Wrath. Instagram is Pride, Lust, Gluttony, Greed and Sloth. TikTok is the Tower of Babel or something.”
And I personally related to an over-lengthy section on how corporate H.R. departments now have way too much power. “HR today is saying don’t bring your real personality in here. We don’t like who you really are. Nobody wants your real personality. H.R. is the law enforcement arm of the office. You’ll see five years from now there will be no more Law and Order, no more CSI, every cop show is going to be “HR.”
But the show too often strays from its core subjects -- and Quinn’s clever brand of conversational comedy -- and strays into the banal, such as his ability to do simple multiplication as a kid or an unnecessary jibe about award-show speeches. And the piece’s ending – dealing with America’s epitaph – seems really abrupt.
Still, I admit I would have enjoyed “Small Talk” – which ran a mere 60 minutes at my matinee -- far more if I had been able to watch it in my pajamas at home, snack when I want, and, yes, go on Facebook and Twitter during some of its more pedestrian sequences.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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