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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
To the outside observer, Ars Nova could seem like your basic, respectable Off Broadway theatre: It’s got a posh building in Hell’s Kitchen and a development group for young playwrights, and it’s even co-produced plays with fancy companies like Manhattan Theatre Club. When you see a show at Ars Nova, however, you find a frenzied heart beneath the snazzy style. Artists are encouraged to try just about anything, there’s an apparently limitless supply of stage blood in the basement, and beer flows freely at the bar.
This fusion of Off-Broadway resources and off-Off-Broadway spirit makes Ars Nova the rare theatre that can support the boldest visions of young, untested artists---artists who haven’t won grants or reached large audiences, but who are promising all the same. If you’re twenty-four and your show needs a giant frog statue and a film noir tone, then Ars Nova will make it happen.
That’s essentially what happened with The Lapsburgh Layover, an adventurous new comedy that plays at Ars Nova through the end of the month. In 2008, the Nova team was scouting new talent at the Philadelphia Fringe, and they came across a clown-comedy-horror show called The Giant Squid. It was presented by a group of Philly artists who would eventually call themselves The Berserker Residents, and Ars Nova courted them right away.
Earlier this year, they invited the Berserkers to develop a new show in New York. To help the process, Ars Nova introduced the troupe to several directors and then asked which one they’d like to work with. The Berserkers chose Oliver Butler, who also heads The Debate Society, a downtown New York company known for its darkly comic material. Butler and the Berserkers began an intense collaboration in May, and by the end of last month, The Lapsburgh Layover was ready.
Both the director and the performers sensed the possibility in their collaboration. “We picked Oliver because we thought he would bring something new to our table,” says Berserker Justin Jain. “A couple of the other directors that they had us interview with were very much of our same aesthetic: Silly, outlandish, stupid humor. We saw that Oliver could take those elements and layer in a more naturalistic approach.”
Likewise, Butler wanted to see how his style--- which he calls “slow-burn, very dark comedy that’s rooted in a strange realism”---would interact with the clowning, pop culture references, and madcap energy of the Philly gang. “I wanted to create a solid, darker emotional base for them to work from,” he says. “I find that kind of melancholy a fertile place for both drama and comedy.”
Those forces collide in The Lapsburgh Layover. The show begins as soon as we enter the lobby, where we’re told we’re airline passengers who have been delayed in the fictional country of Lapsburgh. We’re dragged through customs (in the Ars Nova basement) and shown into the theatre, where several Lapsburghers stage a detective drama for our pleasure.
Things get wild as the Lapsburghers play multiple roles in their comically awful play. They also interrupt the story to serve snacks and present a slide show on Lapsburgh’s tourism industry. The melancholy comes when we realize there’s a Biblical plague threatening their lives.
At press time, the show is still being refined, and Jain says a Miley Cyrus song may be added for a dance break. At Ars Nova, that kind of last-minute, go-ahead-and-try-it experimentation is exactly the point.
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor