Night of the Auk – 2012 NYC Fringe Festival Review

The Great Auks were a species of flightless birds that went extinct in the 19th Century. Night of the Auk is not about auks running amok and killing people.  No the auk is used a metaphor which becomes important in the last few minutes of the story.  This play is actually about a group of astronauts returning to Earth after the first manned mission to the Moon.  That concept was still science fiction back in 1956 when Night of the Auk first hit Broadway, but now the producers of this off-off-Broadway revival are presenting it as a comedy.

Night of the Auk must have looked promising to Broadway producers back in the 50’s.  It was written by Arch Oboler who had penned the very successful Lights Out radio show (Something of a precursor to TV’s Twilight Zone).  The original Broadway production also had a stellar cast that included Christopher Plummer and Claude Rains.  Plus it was about a space capsule returning from the Moon – a new concept for theater at the time.

Alas, the script had many problems and seeing it produced in modern times makes them all very clear.  It has a pinch of murder mystery to it, but it isn’t really a Whodunit since the bad guy is clear right from the start.  It also has lots of interesting things happening offtage, but interesting things rarely happen on the stage where the audience can see them.  The dialog is over-written with verbose blue-collar technicians, and excessively-philosophical scientists.  While this occasionally becomes bad enough to snicker at, mostly it’s just plain boring.

Parody is a tricky thing; the presentation can’t be too thick or too thin. That’s the problem with this new production, Night of the Auk wasn’t intended to be a comedy, and it isn’t bad enough to be inadvertently funny in a consistent manner throughout its 75 minute playing time.

The goal seems to be to allow the material to hang itself, therefore it’s performed with lots of edits but no embellishments. It’s fun to hear the commander of a spaceship refer to his ship as a “Freefall Spheroid” and the co-directors (Adam Levie & Kaitlyn Samuel) instruct their cast to give knowing looks at the audience after some of the sillier lines, but an ironic attitude toward the dated material doesn’t save Night of the Auk from being a slow-paced, dull tale with only the occasional laugh.

The total lack of set and props doesn’t help.  Actors mime everything from the controls of the rocket, right down to pieces of paper.  For sound effects, the performers make their own “Beep” and “Swoosh” noises which add a light-hearted camp to the evening, but also a touch of amateurism.  Costumes (Designed by Sydney Maresca) fare better; the crew is dressed in reasonably futuristic white uniforms that help create a “Spacey” look to the cast, but the spaceship crew is still left on an almost entirely bare stage.

The cast throws themselves into the piece, especially Michael Ross Albert who chews the scenery as the prissy, entitled villain of the piece.  Unfortunately the laughs are rare, despite the performers’ enthusiasm.

Night of the Auk ran a mere eight performances in its Broadway run, and rightly deserves it status as a minor footnote in Broadway history.  This production has three performances left at the time of this writing and is only of interest to the most devout fans of Arch Oboler.

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