A weak script and stale jokes sink High Dive
The concept and plot of Leslie Ayvazian's one-person play at New Theatre, High Dive, are certainly original and creative. The play features a neat audience participation gimmick and a solid, engaging performance from five-time Carbonell-nominated actress Barbara Sloan. But in the end, the concept and performance fall victim to a tepid script that delivers few genuine laughs or anything else of real interest.
Atop a high dive in a hotel in Greece, Leslie, who is terrified of heights, chronicles the comic misadventures of past vacations while her son and 34 other poolside onlookers goad her to jump. Her young son, played by Alex Eisenberg (an absolute dead ringer for Michael Cera — it might be worth watching the play just to meet and take a picture with this kid), periodically interrupts Leslie's musings to remind her that she needs to climb the ladder and just dive already. A half hour before the performance, Sloan casts willing participants to play Leslie's husband, mother-in-law, and other hotel guests who try and prod her to take the plunge. Random audience participation! What could possibly go wrong?
Leslie's lifelong comedy of errors is our guide. She is three weeks away from turning 50, and as she vacations with her family in Greece, she begins to piece together her story: No matter where she travels, or how many risks she psyches herself into taking, life constantly takes a dump on her.
An adolescent motorcycle accident sets the tone for a life full of mishap and bad luck. A trip to Florida finds Leslie and her family in the middle of a record-breaking cold snap. A massive earthquake shakes up a vacation to Mexico. A hurricane ruins a Hawaiian excursion. Leslie can't even catch a break on her honeymoon; the couple returns to a burglarized home. How's that for crappy luck? As with the best comedies, these forays into epic-life-fail are perfect settings for humorous storytelling. But, as the show waned, those jokes didn't come. At least none that were particularly funny or appealing.
The overarching theme of High Dive is the overcoming of fear, and Leslie has gobs of it to beat down. She's hitting half-a-century, and her life has been filled with traumatic experiences that have left her timid and fearful or, more accurately, she's treated her life experiences with timidity and fear. But life is to be grabbed by the balls, and the diving board she's trying to conquer is a proverbial obstacle toward trouncing those fears once and for all.
We started off rooting for Leslie, thanks mostly to Ms. Sloan's plucky performance. She nimbly marched across the stage throughout, recounting Leslie's adventures in calamity, aging, and overcoming fear. Sloan, who gave a tremendous performance, made the most of a weak script and stale, hackneyed jokes. But Leslie's stories quickly turned from zany, humorous anecdotes of misadventure to an interminable whine-fest. It was one calamity after another with nary a humorous climax. Someone else's misfortune is always great comedy fodder. But the jokes never hit home. By the middle of the play, we didn't care if she jumped off the diving board, or if she just smacked her whiny kid upside the head and grabbed a mojito at a poolside bar.
Audience members who audaciously volunteered to take on a role were handed a clipboard with their lines and given cues via a series of numbers displayed onstage. But the device, which should have led to at least one golden comedic moment, hurt the production more than it helped (unless you find awkward line-reading and someone clumsily dropping a clipboard in the middle of a silent moment hilarious and entertaining).
Some people, as well-intentioned and enthusiastic as they might have been, were just Keanu Reeves-shitty when it came to reading lines out loud ("Um... whoa."). And then there were some who went overboard — evoking their inner Barbara Streisand by over-enthusiastically belting lines to the back row of a theater somewhere in Wisconsin ("Jump! Jump!"). Though some performances were better than others, the monotone readers and Oliver-wannabes became a distraction. It would have helped if the participants were given funnier lines to deliver, rather than the weedy dialog found in Ayvazian's script.
Even Sloan's acting fell victim to a mostly impassive story. Still, Sloan managed to deftly capture Leslie's anxiety, doing her best to channel the playwright's plight.
During Leslie's stories, there are frequent flash-forwards to present, where she cradles the high dive's ladder and continues to use her son's goading as motivation to jump. While the account is based on true events, the ladder and diving board are, of course, metaphors. You're getting up there in age, Leslie. You've used everyday trials and misfortunes as excuses not to go for it. It would work if the play had more going for it.
Toward the story's climax, as Leslie leans against the ladder's railing trying to find the courage to climb another rung, a pack of teenagers impatiently rambles past her, and she realizes she may be in over her head. Leslie watches each teen dive into the pool, and she's reminded that she has lost her youth, and there's no turning back the clock. Though the theme resonates with a middle-aged audience, it obscures a more universal theme of conquering fear. And that is the real shame.
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