Tag Archive | Theatre 80

Play Review: With a Little Help . . . It’s John Belushi at Theatre 80

John Belushi Play Card
Photos By Gail, Except Where Noted

To many, comedian and actor John Belushi still feels like a contemporary artist — owing to the tenacity with which his work has embedded itself in pop culture — but the fact is that Belushi has been dead for a long time. A friend who accompanied me to the opening-night performance of a new play entitled With a Little Help . . . It’s John Belushi wasn’t quite two years old in March of 1982, when the hard-partying performer died of an accidental drug overdose in a Hollywood hotel room. But while she wasn’t even born yet when John Belushi broke comedic ground during the first incarnation of Saturday Night Live, and probably didn’t see Animal House until it had been in the can for 20 years, my friend has a conversational knowledge of all his best bits. That’s what it means to be a legend.

John In Nativity Scene
Jack Zullo (Far Right) as John Belushi in a Scene from With A Little Help . . . (Photo By K. Bentley)

The story behind The Rise and Fall of John Belushi is seriously overdue for a stage or screen adaptation, and playwright/actor Jack Zullo — who fully embodies Belushi’s manic energy and uncompromising spirit in the title role — admits that it’s been over thirteen years since he was first inspired to work on John Belushi as a character study, and immersed himself in the comedian’s material. What started out as a spec feature film script evolved into this current stage production of With A Little Help . . . It’s John Belushi, which was previously honed through multiple West Coast performances. With a goal of finding a place in the NYC theater scene, Zullo aspires to reverse-engineer the play back into a feature-length script to tell the story of John’s life in narrative form; something that has been attempted by many, but not successfully executed.

With a Little Help opens quietly on a scene in the bungalow at the Chateau Marmont where John Belushi spent his final moments of life, having just fatally overdosed on a combination of heroin and cocaine. As he collapses on a mattress and takes his last breath, a chorus of disembodied voices ring out in the theater, admonishing the reckless thirty-three-year-old for being such a “dumb sonofabitch.” But the tragic tone quickly segues into a high-energy flashback of John, accompanied by his girlfriend Judy and best friend Steve, on a night in 1967 when he attended his first comedy show at Chicago’s The Second City club. John is visibly bursting with creative inspiration as he declares that he has found his life’s calling and intends to pursue a career in comedy.

From there, we follow John Belushi’s rise to prominence as an iconic American entertainer; working his way up from an indie college performer in 1968, to Manhattan in the mid-1970s, where he was part of the infamous National Lampoon Magazine and its Radio Hour, all the way through his four-year stint as one of the Not Ready For Prime Time Players on Saturday Night Live.

The story of Belushi’s quick ascent to pop culture success shines the spotlight on his struggles to maintain control on the excesses afforded a budding star, counterbalanced with his desire to always be ahead of the curve by keeping the work fresh and exciting, and setting trends rather than following them. With a Little Help effectively revisits a time in American TV when the field of comedy was a Wild West for creative invention. John Belushi’s career was a wild ride while it lasted, but it’s not like we don’t already know how the journey ends.

Ticket Stub

With a Little Help takes its title from the now-legendary Saturday Night Live skit in which Belushi gives an over-the-top impersonation of British singer Joe Cocker’s eccentrically-mannered performance of The Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends.” This skit is recreated in the play, as are musical numbers made famous by The Blues BrothersBelushi’s band with Dan Aykroyd. The production features the terrific Crazy Tomes Band, who provide a live soundtrack, accompanying the many musical numbers in the show, and playing a set of covers before the play starts.

In addition to the great live music, With a Little Help truly becomes a multi-media production, as it incorporates both newly-produced and archival film and video clips, which further the action in ways that would otherwise be impossible, such as when John and friends experience an LSD trip, or when SNL cast members indulge in drug binges that history tells us were common on that set.

The play’s supporting cast of characters includes John Belushi’s devoted wife Judy Jacklin (Jennifer Lieberman, who also appears as Gilda Radner), as well as a who’s who of the comedian ‘friends’ who supported, collaborated with, and cajoled Belushi on his path to fame, such as the National Lampoon’s Tony Hendra (Len Rella), Christopher Guest (Benjamin Batchelder), Brian Murray (Artie Brennan, who also play’s Belushi’s close friend Steve Beshekas), Joe Flaherty (Nicolas Dipierro, who also  appears as Lorne Michaels) and Dan Aykroyd, portrayed brilliantly by Keith Saltojanes. All the actors are excellent in their handling of multiple roles, but Jack Zullo as Belushi is so spot-on in his timing and physical comedy, I forgot multiple times that I was watching an actor and not Belushi himself.

John Belushi did not get to live a long life. It’s tragic that his comedic legacy also includes the bleak Hollywood cliche of self-destructive behavior, but With a Little Help . . . It’s John Belushi is less a cautionary tale and more a celebration of and homage to a phenomenally talented individual whose body of work has been, and will continue to be, endlessly influential. Funny, smart, and deeply nostalgia-inducing, With a Little Help . . . It’s John Belushi is a story whose time is now.

Directed by Levy Lee Simon With a Little Help . . . It’s John Belushi runs through December 22nd only at Theatre 80, located at 80 St. Marks Place, in NYC’s East Village. Tickets are super affordable at just $30 — $40 and are available via With a Little Help Show Dot Com. Showtimes are Thursdays at 7 PM, Fridays & Saturdays at 7 PM and 10 PM, and Sunday Matinees at 3 PM. A portion of ticket sales from the Theatre 80 run will be donated to The Comedians Assistance Fund and Gilda’s Club charities.

Watch The Trailer Below:

Must See Show: Tesla at NYC’s Theatre 80

Tesla Play Banner

In the 2006 film, The Prestige, Serbian-born Physicist and Inventor Nikola Tesla (played by David Bowie) serves as a sort of ‘Mad Scientist’ inspiration and mentor to a competitively obsessed magician/illusionist portrayed by Hugh Jackman. It’s probably not a complete accident then that in the eponymous new play (written by Sheri Graubert and Directed by Sanja Bestic) Tesla is referred to repeatedly as a ‘Magician.’ While Tesla’s scientific legacy includes contributions as varied as design of the modern alternating current (AC) electricity supply system and early developments in Remote Control and X-ray technologies, his name is perhaps best known these days for having been adopted by an ‘80s Hair Metal band. And that’s just a shame. Hopefully, Tesla will be able to move on to Broadway after its Off Broadway run, exposing a wider audience to Nikola Tesla’s genius and futuristic vision.

In this engaging play, an older Tesla (played by Jack Dimich) sits in his New York City Hotel room, kept company only by his memories and occasional visits from the Bellhop (Luka Mijatovia). There, he reflects on the accomplishments of his past while mentally confronting his many professional adversaries who exploited him with varying degrees of opportunism, indifference and cruelty. James Lee Taylor (who, if you look up any actual photos of Tesla, is a dead ringer for the inventor during his late thirties) portrays Tesla as a younger man, and carries the bulk of the action on his very capable shoulders. Over the course of ninety minutes, the story of Tesla’s amazing career unfolds in ways that are both wildly inspiring and devastatingly heartbreaking.

Taking place at a time when the world was a Wild West for Scientific invention, many inventors were coming up with similar ideas for technological advancements at the same time as their peers. Even those who managed to make it to the patent office first didn’t always maintain a tight rein of control over their inventions. This is emphasized best in a reoccurring appearance by Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi (played with brilliant comic effect by Jeff Solomon) who is repeatedly denied a patent for his invention of the Radio – a field of research and development also pioneered by Tesla. It is implied that Marconi and Tesla remained lifelong adversaries.

The onstage action, which takes place in a static three-part interior set, is occasionally augmented by the incorporation of black and white film clips, starring the play’s actors, which provide a newsreel-like back-story or help to advance the story line in a way that dialogue will not suffice. Such clips are used most effectively in a G-Rated – but nevertheless quite passionate – love scene between Tesla and his implied romantic interest, Katherine (Samantha Slater), that illustrates the bittersweet, largely unfulfilled state of their affair.

Other historical figures fleshing out this extremely fascinating and vibrant play include Tesla’s early employer, Thomas Edison (Tom Cappadona), financial tycoon JP Morgan (portrayed as being pretty much an ego-maniacal prick by Adam Pagdon) and actor Allessandro Colla in a dual role as George Westinghouse and Mark Twain. Colla’s over-the-top physical mannerisms employed in his portrayal of Westinghouse are a highlight among the performances of a universally outstanding cast.

Nicola Tesla died of heart failure in 1943 at the age of 86: penniless, in debt and alone in the hotel room in which he lived during the final days of his life. Was he ahead of his time? No doubt. Was he a mysterious genius? Most definitely.

Tesla is Showing at Theater 80, Located at 80 St Mark’s Place (East 8th Street between First and Second Avenues) in New York City through June 8th, 2013. Showtime is at 8:00 PM Daily with a 3:00 PM Matinee on Sundays. Phone 212-388-0388 or visit http://www.teslaoffbroadway.com for Tickets and Further Information.