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In ‘Alice,’ the Critics Become the Critiqued

Natural Theatricals premiere show pays when slamming those who pan.

Everyone is a critic during Natural Theatricals’ premiere of "Alice in Underwear." When picking up tickets for the play at the George Washington Masonic National Memorial’s amphitheater, each theatergoer is deputized with a makeshift press pass — anointed as "critics" for the evening.

Discovering a crowd of her "peers" is the first indignation for Alison Alice, a caustic theater critic played by Paula Alprin, who also wrote the play. She’s an extreme example of a media curmudgeon: bigoted, egotistical and aware of the power she wields as an opinion-maker. "Of course I’m nasty," she sneers at one point, "that’s my role."

Alprin’s "Alice in Underwear" is an examination of that role, and what influences a critic to tear down the work of an actor or writer on stage. It alleges journalistic dishonesty, and contends that personal feelings — a bad day at the office, a skeleton in the closet — all too often factor into scathing reviews. Sometimes it makes these accusations with clever accuracy; in other cases, the quips and barbs are as subtle as a kick to the underwear.

The biggest obstacle for the play is that its protagonist is also its antagonist. Alice is anything but a sympathetic character. When the painful roots of her cynicism show, it’s difficult to feel sympathy for the devil. She’s a wicked creation, an unapologetic hatemonger that dishes out bile for world cultures ("The most famous French museum sounds like a British pit stop") and ethnicities. With her slender face and long blonde hair, I tried to put parallels to Ann Coulter out of mind; by her tenth joke about the French, that became impossible.

ALICE COMES to The Weather Vane theater in Manhattan to interview the elusive Sue Z., a big-time producer. After ranting about having lost her "exclusive" to the audience of "critics," she’s greeted by four black-and-white clad spokespersons for Sue. Chester (confident Colin H. Smith) is a suave man with a tux and a scotch. Maude (Laura E. Quenzel) is a sadistic vamp in a black cocktail dress. Rupert (Joshua Steinberg) wears aviation goggles and a black t-shirt that reads: "Those who think they know everything annoy those of us that do." Dorsey (Jennifer Reitz, providing some levity) is a narcoleptic caffeine addict who spends most of the show face down in a pillow.

As Alice waits for her interview during a thunderstorm — and battles an ailing back — the quartet begin to probe her about her critiques, including one that killed a show and may have eventually killed its star. They build a case against the hypocrisy of her strongly-held beliefs, reveal her prejudices, and slowly build towards a painful personal revelation.

It’s that revelation, in the climax of the play, where Alprin shines as both performer and writer. She bares her soul, turning a longish monologue into a forceful moment of honesty. It’s quite a payoff, though its intensity isn’t matched by anything else in the work. The title "Alice in Underwear" suggests a Lewis Carroll influence, and it’s there in the light word play and manic performances of Alice’s tormentors. The dialogue snaps, but doesn’t pop — some of the clever turns-of-a-phrase zip by due to the pacing.

Pegi Marshall-Amundsen’s set design is minimalist but well-staged for a show in a confined space, and Lighting Designer Andrew Griffin add a few nice touches. Director David E. Binet keeps the action moving in his first production, and does a commendable job breaking up the 75-minute show as episodically as possible.

CAN A CRITIC correctly criticize a creation that criticizes critics? (There’s some Lewis Carroll for you.)

Yes, when you consider the level of respect "Alice in Underwear" gives to the clout critics wield; can they be anything but flattered by a play that claims the only power higher than a theater critic is that of a deity?