Island City Stage may be a relative newcomer on the South Florida theater scene, but the artists at a company that isn’t quite two years old know what they’re doing.
Performing at Fort Lauderdale’s Empire Stage, the Island City gang won raves for their production of Dan Clancy’s The Timekeepers last fall. And now the company has crafted another, albeit quite different, show that’s likely to be a big hit with its growing number of fans.
Josh Mesnik’s Have I Got a Girl for You is as riotously funny as The Timekeepers was moving and serious. Star Mike Westrich, director Michael Leeds and sound designer David Hart were involved in both, but their work on each bears no resemblance, except for its high quality.
Based on Mesnik’s real-life experience — an experience that’s a little mind-boggling — Have I Got a Girl for You takes its title from a song in the Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical Company. The play’s focal character, not coincidentally named Josh (Westrich), is a musical theater actor fresh out of rehab. Trying to stay away from the restaurant scene, with its easy access to the booze and drugs that got him into trouble in the first place, Josh takes a job answering phones at the high-end Boca Raton escort agency Fille de Nuit.
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The agency’s demanding, self-centered madam Gina (Sharyn Peoples) figures that her new gay employee is a safe hire, and as far as Josh having any sexual interest whatsoever in her hard-working girls, she’s right. But the former actor is a quick study, and before long he and working girl Ellen (Christina Groom) are figuring out how to launch their own agency.
Mesnik’s writing is sharp, funny and loaded with musical theater references that provide an extra layer of laughs for those who know the genre. The sexual conversation gets pretty graphic, as you might expect from a play in which the majority of the characters are prostitutes or their customers, but the comedic tone alleviates what otherwise could be creepy.
Leeds keeps the pace flying through 90 intermission-free minutes, which means quite a workout for Groom (who plays all the working girls) and Larry Buzzeo (he portrays the johns and Gina’s cheated-on hubby). Both actors use Peter A. Lovello’s costumes, different accents and changes in their physicality to create an amusing array of characters.
The tall, curvy Peoples, dressed by Lovello in a kind of trashy-chic style, makes Gina the sort of egocentric comic monster who happily crushes the weak. Westrich’s Josh, however, is anything but weak.
The actor nails the character’s withering wit, take-charge calmness and engaging charm. It’s an irresistibly juicy role, one that Mesnik originated in the play’s only previous production at the New York International Fringe Festival. Under Leeds’ direction, Westrich makes a man with a unique post-rehab story thoroughly appealing.