Volume 75, Number 23 | Oct. 26 - Nov. 01, 2005


Written by Roger Rosenblatt
Directed by Jim Simpson
Through November 17
Tickets $50-$55
The Flea Theater
41 White Street, between Broadway and Church

Photo by Dixie Sheridan

Bebe Neuwirth, Jeffrey DeMunn, James Waterston & Jenn Harris (left to right) star in “Ashley Montana Goes Ashore in the Caicos...,” a vaudeville-esque series of vignettes about American politics, pop culture, and everything else under the sun.

‘Ashley Montana’ explores uncharted waters

By Scott Harrah

Back in 1991, model Ashley Montana posed for the cover of Sports Illustrated’s annual Swimsuit Issue. The gorgeous blonde was shown frolicking in the Caribbean while sporting a white, one-piece bathing suit that barely covered her derriere. The cover caption read “Ashley Montana Goes Ashore in the Caicos.”

It’s hard to say exactly what renowned political essayist and playwright Roger Rosenblatt sees in this former covergirl other than sheer lust and fantasy. Is she a symbol of a more innocent America? A metaphor about how many of us would like to relocate to a faraway deserted island and escape the stresses of 21st century life? Whatever the case, 14 years later, Rosenblatt has turned Montana’s cheesecake image into a hilarious, offbeat, intellectual and topical series of vignettes about modern life.

There’s no actual set here other than a reproduction of Ashley Montana’s vintage magazine cover painted onto giant Venetian blinds. Flyers for “Ashley Montana” describe it as being “almost a play,” but there’s no cohesive story to follow, and nothing about this stream-of-consciousness show is anything like cabaret, stand-up comedy, improv, or other traditional genres one might expect to see onstage. So exactly what are we seeing? If anything, this is simply social and political commentary done as theater, delivered with piercing honesty and on-target satire. We have four of the New York theater world’s most seasoned pros—Bebe Neuwirth, Jeffrey DeMunn, Jenn Harris, and James Waterston—acting out various skits, musical numbers and seriocomic scenarios. Most of the subject matter is lifted straight out of today’s headlines. Bebe Neuwirth, looking as glamorous as ever in a black corseted dress, belts out a hilarious tune, “Nothing Rhymes With Ashcroft.” Moments later, James Waterston sits at the piano and sings a scathing little ditty about FEMA’s controversial handling of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and blasts the Washington bureaucrats and all their lame excuses. What follow are several skits about everything from Bush and Iraq to retirement housing, cultural diversity at the nation’s colleges, terrorism, gay marriage, health care, the annoying use of cell phones in public, our predilection for 600 channels of cable TV, sensationalism in the media, Adolph Hitler and the holocaust, the meaning of life and death, and so on. Not all of the vignettes always work or are even funny, but each address issues anyone in post-9/11 America can relate to, and every word is filled with incisive wit and pungent sarcasm. Rosenblatt boldly depicts the Zeitgeist of a nation in crisis and at war.

Some of the vignettes are particularly illuminating. In the most poignant one, Jeffrey DeMunn portrays a man who, after 36 years of working at a company, is abruptly downsized. One can instantly sense the discomfort of the audience as DeMunn delivers a brilliant and heartbreaking monologue about how people who work all their lives and do everything right on the job are oftentimes the first to be fired when a company starts losing money and the economy lags. Anyone who’s ever experienced the agony of a job loss can identify with the character’s angst.

One of the funniest skits is about the “Mayflower 2,” featuring four British immigrants rowing a boat across the Atlantic to America as they discuss our country’s odd fascination with anything Anglo, and how their exotic accents will help them land jobs at American magazines. (American journalists who have been replaced by posh Brits at their publications will find this piece trenchant indeed.)

Jim Simpson brilliantly directs this marvelous foursome as they do various stunts (like dancing in a conga line) to make the unorthodox narrative flow more freely and keep things visually appealing. Many of the skits are performed vaudeville-style, with actors dancing around, laughing at their own lines, sighing loudly, or chanting in unison. In a breezy and entertaining 75 minutes, Rosenblatt—who’s best known for his Peabody-award-winning essays on “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” on PBS—reveals more truth, insight and irony about the meaning of these troubled times we live in than anything you’ll likely see on or off Broadway this season. It’s no surprise that Rosenblatt’s Time magazine cover essay, “A Letter to the Year 2086,” was selected for the time capsule placed inside the Statue of Liberty during its centennial. “Ashley Montana Goes Ashore in the Caicos Or: What Am I Doing Here?” is a beautifully written and exquisitely acted show by a playwright who is certainly a powerful voice of the new millennium.

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