In the new musical comedy/vanity project A Turtle on a Fence Post by Prisoner #11RO731 (aka political consultant and broker Hank Morris), the writer continues his public feud with New York’s embattled ex-Governor Andrew Cuomo in a fictionalized rehashing of the narrative of his imprisonment, after pleading guilty to felony charges brought by then NY State Attorney General Cuomo for financial fraud in 2010, in a pension fund pay-to-play kickback scheme that steered investments to friends and political associates (for which Morris received some $19 million in fees). This personal theatricalized version of the events portrays Cuomo as having launched that legal vendetta against Morris for refusing to work with him or to take his repeated phone calls; so now Morris is retaliating with a “pity party” of a show that makes it hard (and by “hard” I mean impossible) to sympathize with either one of them.
Framed in the device of a comedy-club appearance by Morris (whose one-liner puns are more groan-inducing than funny), the lengthy go-back payback story traces his career, family life, fraud case, jail time, and release with direct-address segments explaining his financial wheeling-and-dealing and questioning of the NY State legal and judicial systems (both illustrated with projections designed by Stefania Bulbarella); his workaholic personality, guilty plea, repeated parole denials, and inability to change that ultimately brought an end to his marriage; and his jailhouse interactions with fellow prisoners. It’s all told with a sardonic tone and a stylistic array of 22 original songs, with appealing music by Austin Nuckols (music direction by Aaron Gandy and orchestrations and arrangements by Steve Orich) and redundant lyrics by Lily Dwoskin.
The show’s self-acquitting title references a favorite platitude from Bill Clinton (who faced impeachment charges and accusations of sexual harassment similar to those of Cuomo): “When you see a turtle on a fence post, you know it didn’t get there by itself. It doesn’t belong there. You wonder who put it there.” These men are no turtles.
Under the direction of Gabriel Barre, Garth Kravits stars as Morris, eliciting little appreciation for his self-indulgent character or his uneven vocals. He is supported by a company of six (Kate Loprest, Joanna Glushak, Josh Marin, Richard E. Waits, Erik Gratton, and David Aron Damane) playing multiple featured and subsidiary roles. Among the standouts are Glushak’s skillfully controlled comedic characterization of his mother Rita; the entertaining Marin and Waits as his sometimes friendly, sometimes threatening jail mates; Marin’s hilarious anthropomorphized ATM, telephone, and basketball hoop that ingest an inserted card, beep, and throw the ball back; Damane’s show-stopping performance of “There’s a Light” in his well-rounded portrayal of Z (who calls out the clueless Morris for his total lack of social consciousness); and the cast’s lively but anachronistic song-and-dance number “There’s Always a Second Act” (with choreography by Kenny Ingram).
Walt Spangler’s expansive bi-level set easily shifts from comedy club to prison to homes, restaurants, and other locales, supported by expert lighting by Yael Lubetzky and sound by Twi McCallum (the brief flash of a thunderstorm is especially impressive), while costumes and make-up by Vanessa Leuck and hair and wig design by Bobbie Zlotnik define the actors’ changing characters.
Despite the best efforts of the cast and team, the only take-aways from this self-serving blame game are that political divisiveness is stuck in a never-ending cycle of revenge that stymies any progress we could be making and that money, power, and privilege are no excuse for unethical behavior on either side. It’s a lesson that Prisoner #11RO731 still hasn’t learned.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes, including an intermission.
A Turtle on a Fence Post plays through Sunday, November 21, 2021, at Theater 555, 555 West 42nd Street, NYC. For tickets (with prices starting at $69), go online. All individuals must show a photo ID and proof of vaccination at the theater and will be required to wear a mask at all times unless actively eating or drinking.