Smash or trash? Our reviewer checks out ‘Murder at the Food Co-op’

Shameless: Gersh Kuntzman will stop at nothing to promote his new Fringe Festival musical.

Brooklynites are understandably nervous about Neo-Shtick Theater’s new satirical farce “Murder at the Food Co-op,” set as it is inside the much-mocked Park Slope Food Co-op.

A preview article in this very news organ featured a comment from a reader bidding, “Fingers crossed this is the anti-Park Slope musical I have been waiting for.”

Alas, it is not.

Instead, “Murder at the Food Co-op” is a funny, though certainly imperfect, comedy — a parody, if you will, more of Agatha Christie than of Park Slope in general. Yes, all the obvious targets for the neighborhood’s legions of haters are here — liberal pieties, locavore hypocrisies, the endless rule mongering, and the shortcomings of our “Western-style-and-therefore-racist democracy,” as one character puts it — but they are gently, almost lovingly, mocked.

The plot, insomuch as there is one: Doris Chiang Kai Shenkman (a spirited Alex Covington), the Co-op’s brass-plated founder, is discovered dead just outside the “environmentally friendly” freezer unit (cheekily identified as a “Gore 3000”). After a laborious, Roberts Rules of Order-fueled debate about whether to call in the cops, Det. Dick Johnson (Doug Chitel) arrives to start his investigation.

Suspects include everyone at the Co-op: Ali al-Muhammad (Michael Gellert) and his secret Jewish lover Muffy Golda Meir Finkelberg (Alaina Fragoso); the Coop’s heartthrob rock star Johnny Endive (a heartthrobb-y Brian A. Mason); okra addict Schmuel Guevara (Johari Frasier); Jackie Sojourner Truth Smythe (Brittany Shaffer), a reporter for the in-house newspaper, the Weekly Composter (written in “17 languages and in Braille, and responsibly printed on dried-up kale”); and the detective himself.

Director Eric Oleson does a stellar job keeping all the balls in motion as subplots bounce off in riotous directions, and the lyrics by Marc Dinkin are consistently outstanding — and much better than the dialogue, written by longtime tabloid hack Gersh Kuntzman. Smythe’s love song to Johnson, “I’ll Make a Liberal Socialist Wack Job Out of You Yet,” and Johnson’s anti-liberal “Sometimes a Melon’s Just a Melon” are the highlights. A much subtler number, a love song between Ali and Finkelberg called “In the Freezer,” is as close as “Murder at the Food Coop” gets to touching as the pair mourn their ill-fated love amid a backdrop of 2,000 years of Jewish-Arab violence.

Kuntzman, who purports to be a joke machine, uses one-and two-liners to the detriment of getting the story told. To my eyes, as the nation’s foremost puppetry and mime critic, he redeems himself with a small but critical role at the end, entering the Co-op with his “comfort animal, Trotsky,” who then reveals a key clue. Kuntzman’s puppetry work with the dog doll is reminiscent of Mandelbaum’s best fingering from the String and Hand Institute of Technology, where I honed my craft back in the day.

Other minor quibbles: Several actors defy everything I believe about theater by not allowing themselves to be heard. A shtick comedy like this must be emoted as if the back row is in Canarsie; here, some characters whisper key set-up lines, hindering the punch of the punchline. And a malfunctioning air conditioner at Sunday’s performance left the audience wilting during the show’s almost two-hour run.

No, “Murder at the Food Co-op” is not the rapier attack on every one of Park Slope’s many self-righteous mores. And you should definitely not see it if you want an earnest, sobering, serious drama about humanity — something Kuntzman is clearly incapable of. But if you want a few self-knowing laughs at the expense of Brooklyn’s most controversial population this side of the hipsters, then this is the show you have, indeed, been waiting for.

Thurston Dooley III has been reviewing puppet theater, juggling and mime for more than three decades. He is editor emeritus at Modern Marionette and a member of the Puppet Critics Circle. He is a periodic contributor to The Brooklyn Paper.

“Murder at the Food Coop” has three more performances at the New York City International Fringe Festival: Aug. 17 at 7:15 pm; Aug. 24 at 2 pm; and Aug. 25 at 6:15 pm. All shows at the Flamboyan Theater (107 Suffolk St. between Rivington and Delancey streets in Manhattan, www.fringenyc.org). $18.

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