reviewed by Larry Adams

(God) exists out of time. It really messes with our DVR.”

The IndyFringe Theatre Festival is a lively experience in the downtown area each summer. Cramming 285 performances by over 400 entertainers onto just six stages over three weeks is almost as impressive logistically as it is artistically, but it offers patrons a unique opportunity to experience a wide variety of genres in a fun, compact and well-organized setting. It’s been nine years since I had the opportunity to produce and perform in a Fringe show, so it was with a bit of nostalgia that I entered the District Mainstage auditorium this afternoon to watch Play by Play, a collection of “Tiny Little Plays” by award-winning (and fairly recent Indianapolis resident) Mark Harvey Levine. Produced for IndyFest by Clerical Error Productions, it features the talents (and I do mean talents) of Bryan Ball, Adam Crowe, Tracy Herring, T.J. O’Neil, Talor Ray and Michelle Wafford.

Loosely held together by the running gag of some sort of sporting event, the sixteen scenes run the gamut from, as the Fringe website states, comedy to drama to science fiction- but the emphasis here, with the exception of one particularly sad but sweet entry, is clearly on comedy. There are fish. And psychics. And nanobots. And it works. Really well.

Mr. Levine has done something remarkable here with his script. Somehow, within the limitation of each 2 to 4 minute “play,” he has managed to create genuine, believable, three-dimensional people, as well as relationships and original plots that feel real despite their obvious absurdities. The premise of each scene is communicated naturally and organically in the dialogue, avoiding the need for a ponderous exposition dump to set it up, and the humor is sharp and well-crafted. But it’s not all jokes. The playwright also offers some moments of real poignancy that are likely to stay with you long after the final curtain. Juggling both emotional extremes with such finesse, it’s clear why Mr. Levine is an internationally produced talent.

Bryan Ball and Adam Crowe in a scene from “Play by Play”

No matter the genius of the script, however, comedy can be a difficult thing to translate to the stage. It requires a director with an innate sense of timing, as well as the ability to reign in the tendency of the typical actor (or maybe that’s just me) to take it too far. Fortunately, the direction here, by Jon Lindley, is tight and right on-target. The laughs come and the scenes move on before the audience has a chance to drift, while the more thoughtful moments linger just enough to reach the heart without becoming sappy or maudlin.

Mr. Lindley would no doubt admit, however, that he is helped along by a truly fantastic cast. Honestly, there’s not a weak link in the bunch. If you held my feet to the fire, I’d have to give top honors this afternoon to Ms. Herring, purely on the basis of her portrayal in a segment called “A Birthday Party;” however, every single actor here has such strong turns in other scenes that such a call is nearly impossible and close to meaningless. These folks are all blessed with exquisite comic timing and natural delivery. Their pacing is on the money, and, most importantly, they understand the subtleties of acting that are essential to selling both comedy and drama.

A final quick round of kudos goes to lighting and sound. Both expertly walk the fine line between adding to the production and distracting from it.

If I had to quibble (and journalistically I figure that has to be at least a small part of my job), I’d point to that perennial nemesis of live theater, an occasional volume issue from a few of the actors in some of the softer areas of dialogue. In addition, a couple of skits (whoops, I mean “plays”) don’t land as well as the rest: one about the Loch Ness Monster, though not without its laughs, felt a little light in the final analysis, and a piece on Jesus as a young boy treads down some already pretty well-worn comedic paths. But my most significant beef with the show is that the over-arching sports theme of the playwright’s script really doesn’t work for me. I suspect Mr. Levine intended his use of a referee (and a “director”) between scenes to give some sort of continuity to the show, as well as to cover the transitions, but the set changes here are so minimal that such a contrivance is really not necessary, and in this case it actually slows down the process without adding much to the production. Brief, musical interludes would have been enough.

But the problem goes beyond just the scene changes. The whole sporting event gimmick gives off the feeling of having been thoroughly done before, and all the old sports cliches and metaphors used as punchlines in a couple of scenes just seem a bit too easy. Not that they aren’t, in the end, funny, or that the actors delivering them don’t do their jobs well; on the contrary, Bryan Ball and Adam Crowe are pitch-perfect in their portrayal of stereotypical TV sports announcers. But in the end, it simply doesn’t rise to the level of wit and originality so clearly evidenced in literally all other aspects of this show. Leave the sports theme in, and the show seems slightly uneven; drop it, and you lose nothing.

As for the negatives, though, that’s really it. And the strength of the rest of the script combined with the tight direction and wonderful performances earn this show more than enough goodwill to overlook any slight deficiencies in either. Nobody’s perfect.

Bottom line: The Indy Fringe Festival is a valuable addition to the Indy art scene, offering a multitude of shows in diverse genres for patrons to enjoy- and Play by Play is (I’ll resist the somewhat hypocritical urge to write “a home run”) likely one of the best of the best this year. Make the trip downtown to experience some of the top creativity and talent Indy has to offer in Play by Play.

Get more info about IndyFringe 2022 at https://indyfringe.org/festival/

  • – photo provided by Clerical Error Productions