"The Big Funk" by John Patrick Shanley is a series of images, some provocative, some downright silly, in search of a play.
The new stage work by the Academy Award-winning author of "Moonstruck" suffers from a bad case of lofty aspirations. The play forsakes story and character for heavy-duty messages about life, death, fear, love and other four-letter words. Oh yes, the playwright provides two nude scenes - one female, one male - for those not moved by words alone. You might call it "Samuel Beckett meets `Oh! Calcutta!' "Shanley is an accomplished writer whose best plays have a gritty, distinctive voice and a specific sense of place. "Danny and the Deep Blue Sea" was a brutal blue-collar Apache dance by two unlikely lovers in The Bronx. "Italian-American Reconciliation" was a loony romance about an inept go-between trying to save the marriage of a battling husband and wife in New York's Little Italy.
There's nothing that concrete in "The Big Funk," which has opened at off-Broadway's New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theater. In it, Shanley, who also directed his play, settles for the abstract. The place is here; the time now. The four main characters arrive one by one to introduce themselves to the audience.
First up is a beautiful young woman (Jeanne Tripplehorn) who calls herself the villain of the piece. She's actually the victim, put-upon by a sleazy guy who picks her up in a bar. Following her on stage is a tightrope walker (Jayne Haynes) named Fifi and her human cannonball of a husband Omar (Graham Beckel).
They are best friends with an unemployed actor named Austin (Jake Weber) who saves the girl after she is humiliated in the bar.
The first act ends with a bubble bath given to the girl by her rescuer. At least it quiets the audience.
Act Two is a Mad Hatter-style dinner for the four friends. During the meal, Austin waxes murkily about life. For some reason, also not entirely clear, the actor walks off-stage and then returns - naked - to lecture the audience on confronting their own fears. He certainly doesn't have any of his own, being able to stand there and remember all his lines.
"The Big Funk" is a collection of odd portraits and pictures rather than a play. It doesn't say much when the most arresting moment on stage is an oozing family-size jar of Vaseline spilling to the floor of the stage.