Back to The Piano Store

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Back in the day: John Clancy, with FringeNYC co-founder Elena K. Holy.

 John Clancy revisits not so long lost era of LES theater

BY MARTIN DENTON  |  Indie theater cognoscenti in New York City will all be heading to the Barrow Street Theater on January 28 and 29 (and so will I, and so should you). Why? Because on those two evenings, “The Piano Store Plays” will be performed by Nancy Walsh, Kevin Pariseau, and their author, John Clancy. It’s the first time that Clancy has appeared on stage in New York in a decade, and the first time these seminal early works have been seen anywhere in more than two decades.

If you’ve never seen John Clancy on stage — or if, like probably the majority of NYC indie theater artists/mavens, you’ve seen him on stage only in the capacity of master of ceremonies/executive or artistic director/rabble-rouser/activist — then you won’t want to miss this rare chance to see him exercise one of his oh-so-many theatrical muscles.

Clancy is probably best known as one of the founders of the New York International Fringe Festival (with Elena K. Holy, Aaron Beall and Jonathan Harris; until 2001, he was its artistic director). Theater-makers in their 20s and 30s regard him as one of indie theater’s elder statesmen (though he’s not yet 50), as co-founder and executive director of the League of Independent Theater and as a teacher and advisor who has offered counsel and support to countless emerging companies and artists.

But Clancy is also, first and foremost, an artist himself — a Renaissance man of theater, in fact. His directing credits include THE seminal indie show “Americana Absurdum” (Brian Parks’s manic but clear-eyed comic view of life in America near the end of the millennium), as well as works by C.J. Hopkins such as “Horse Country” and “screwmachine/eyecandy.”

Working with a corps of excellent actors that has included Nancy Walsh, David Calvitto, Paul Urcioli, Matt Oberg and many others, Clancy created a style of fast-fast-fast relentless and razor-sharp brutal satire that’s as distinctive as it is piercingly effective.

The first John Clancy play I ever saw was “Horse Country,” at the 1999 New York International Fringe Festival. I caught a 10pm performance at the old Present Company Theatorium, after a full day of Fringe-going (it was my sixth show of the day). Though I was pretty tired, his galvanizing production of Hopkins’ sly, brilliant script woke me right up. Clancy’s work demands attention, the way that, say, Yul Brynner did as the King of Siam.

“Horse Country” made me a fan not only of the Clancy style but more importantly of his aesthetic — theater that doesn’t so much jolt or shock the audience as slap them silly (and silly is very deliberately chosen in this context); theater that not only makes you think but may well prompt you to some overt and/or subversive action.

Perhaps no John Clancy work exemplifies this idea more than his solo show, “Notice of Default and Opportunity to Cure” — which he performed for a few weeks in March, 2000. The show was inspired by a legal document (whose title was the same as this play’s) sent by the Present Company’s landlord regarding some owed funds. Clancy shaped his own reaction to this notice, and his deeper and larger thoughts about the nature of money and art and the uncomfortable ways the two are made to intersect in contemporary society, into an unforgettable show. Director Margarett Perry recently said on Facebook about this piece, “Still one of my favorite nights in the theatre! When he burned that $20 bill after going through the finances I was beside myself.” (I should note here that “Notice of Default,” along with several other of Clancy’s plays, is published on Indie Theater Now, a new website that I created and curate that’s devoted to contemporary American drama.)

“Notice of Default” showed me two aspects of Clancy’s talent I had not heretofore witnessed — his charismatic acting ability, and his incisive, insightful playwriting style.  Since then, he has had significant success as a playwright with “Fatboy,” which reworks Jarry’s “Ubu the King” as a grotesque latter-day Punch-and-Judy show, and with “The Event” — a solo piece that explores the very nature of performance itself, in a manner that might best be described as part postmodern deconstruction and part “Our Town.” He is also the author of an amazing and scary comedy called “Captain Overlord’s Folly, or The Fool’s Revenge,” in which a group of anarchic rogue clowns hijack a traditional theater performance, which was commissioned at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2007 but has thus far not had an American production.

And now we have Clancy heading back on the boards in a triptych of his earliest plays. I got this wonderful scene-setting email from Nancy Walsh, John’s frequent collaborator, business partner and wife: “Remember the old Piano Store back when it was an illegal speakeasy? Before there was a Present Company or a New York Fringe?  Back when we were performing at midnight on the Lower East Side when the Lower East Side was the Lower East Side?”

“The Piano Store Plays,” coming to Barrow Street Theater on January 28 and 29, takes us back to that time and place — with John and Nancy reprising roles they performed 20 years ago in that (in)famous old storefront space, joined by Broadway veteran Kevin Pariseau (“Legally Blonde,” “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”). The evening will be comprised of “Anyone” (described as “a love story on stage”); “Falling Out,” in which a marriage ends on stage; and “Solo for Spoon and Birdcage” (a meta-theatrical ballet of ineptitude with singing and loud noises).

Clancy writes, “These three plays were first performed on the Lower East Side in the early 90s, what was then the epicenter of the independent theater world. In a weird way, they are blueprints for all of the work we’ve done with Present Company and Clancy Productions ever since. Back then, Nancy was working Off-Broadway and doing some soap opera work. I was writing crazy shit that no one wanted to produce and auditioning for roles I didn’t want in shows that sucked and getting a few callbacks but no gigs. Nancy recognized the larger implications and said, ‘Let’s do it ourselves. Let’s just put up these shows. Why not?’ So here’s the stuff we put on. The reason that we’re doing them here and now for you is because Martin and Rochelle Denton asked us for anything that John ever wrote to publish on IndieTheaterNow.com and Nancy said ‘What about the Piano Store Plays. They were pretty good.’ ”

I’m excited that we’ll have “The Piano Store Plays” online to share with everyone once this all-too-brief run concludes. In the meantime, I’m excited that John is back on stage in the work that “Started It All,” as they say.

Martin Denton is editor of nytheatre.com. His newest project is indietheaternow.com — the new digital theater library for the 21st century.

THE PIANO STORE PLAYS
Saturday, January 28 at 10pm
Sunday, January 29 at 5pm
At the Barrow Street Theater
27 Barrow St., at 7th Avenue, South of Christopher St.
For tickets ($15), call 212-868-4444 or visit smarttix.com

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