Outroverted, presented by the I Ate What? Theatre Company as part of this year's Midtown International Theater Festival(MITF), bills itself as a quintet of stories showing awkward people struggling to break out of their shells, but let's call it what it really is: a monologue showcase for five writer/actors: Susan Rankus, Simona Berman, Richie McCall, Craig Durante, and Brian Bielawski. As such it's a longish evening but never a boring one, with the rousing best saved for last.
Susan Rankus' warm and funny Renaissance begins the festivities with its tale of an actress so desperate for a post-college gig that she takes the part of an insane nun at - gasp! - a Renaissance Faire. Her fantasies of meeting a handsome prince don't exactly come true, but she does get the hots for a 34-year-old festival favorite who turns out to be just as awkward as she is. Capturing the absurdity of a fair that follows arcane rules of chivalry and maidenhood while simultaneously alerting crowds to the presence of "ye olde ATM machine," Rankus uses her malleable face to imbue her universally recognizable story with a sweetly hopeful spirit.
The equally ingratiating Richie McCall relates the seemingly autobiographical account of how he came to terms with what America continues to demand of most black actors - that they play butlers criminals and secondary roles. "Isn't it enough having black skin," McCall opines. "Do I have to have thick skin, too?"
Sticking especially in the actor's craw is the legacy of Theodore Perry, whose Stepin' Fetchit character all but codified the stereotype of the lazy, shiftless Negro in Hollywood's early talkies. It's hardly a revelation that Fetchit - like other black performers accused of insulting their own race by playing dumb - was actually a gifted comedian and proud of the high fees he commanded, and Me and Steppin[sic] loses some energy when McCall impersonates Perry in a fact-laden lecture that's less engaging than McCall's own journey. That said, McCall's physical transformations are impressive, and his comfort onstage is palpable.
A little of that relaxed stage presence would come in handy for Craig Durante, whose Holding Out offers a rare glimpse into the Wall Street fratboy mindset. A frustrated rock musician fired from his band a week before their break-out gig, Durante grabbed the first decent job that came his way. That turned out to be the high-octane, crazed life of a broker trainee, making 500 sales calls a day and spewing whatever b.s. he could just to keep potential customers on the phone. It's a grabber of a story, and Durante's intensity holds us. However (and, sorry, there's no nice way to say this), he sweats profusely and distractingly, and in the performance I saw, he endured the actor's nightmare of going up on his lines and staying silent for nearly a minute while finding his place. Perhaps in upcoming performances he'll be armed with a towel and a book-in-hand stage manager.
Simona Berman's Just Shut Up and Smile is the only solo piece of the evening divided up among several characters. All show off the actress' physicality and comedic skills while continuing her exploration (begun in her previous work, Crashing) of the dichotomy of modern feminism: wanting to have it all while still yearning to fit society's definition of beauty. Though Berman's short cuts here offer a number of sardonic laughs, the work still feels fragmented, like promising kernels plucked from a longer, and hopefully more satisfying, piece.
By contrast, Brian Bielawski's /out of character"/[sic] could hardly be improved upon. Reminiscent of the pre-mime work of Steven Banks, Bielawski's solo features