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A Shrug and a Smile 

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NEUROTIC SPLENDOR

Adrien Royce

at Sheffield's School Street Cafe

Adrien Royce, a writer and actor, has an engaging, earnest presence onstage. And the stories in Neurotic Splendor, her one-person show--about dating a cross-dresser, making a documentary about bigfoot, swinging from Judaism to fundamentalist Christianity--are potentially incisive and provocative.

But they wander and lack resolution, often ending with superficial little commentaries that feel tacked on--as if Royce knew that the stories needed to end but had no clue why she was telling them in the first place. During most of the show I felt Royce was struggling, wanting very much to find meaning in her adventures but remaining too self-protective to let them reveal her in any but a shrug-and-smile light.

Consider the story about the cross-dresser. It starts quite marvelously, with Royce letting us in on her lover's true nature little by little, just as he did with her. She tells us how she was flattered by his attentions to her size 11 narrow feet, but ultimately what interested him was that he could get his feet into her shoes. In the end, she was just one more in a long string of women he dated with size 11 narrows.

By the time the story ends, we know every kind of bustier the guy bought for her (and himself), but very little about why the relationship worked or why it ended. When it comes time for Royce to give us a reason for her pain (since she's been a willing participant in his dress-up games, we know the fact of his transvestism alone can't be it), she's suddenly vague, quickly wrapping it all up with a contrived story about a tussle over a particular dress. "At least I got to keep the dress," she says, as if that were the moral.

Royce introduces the bigfoot story by telling us that sometimes we'll do anything for money. And sure enough, for the rest of the tale she details her involvement in a project she knows from the get-go is fraudulent. When she tells us about Ivan, a Mark Twain look-alike and bigfoot expert, we think we're about to transcend the story's details. After all, Royce tells us he was so charming he almost made her believe. But once more, what we discover is that Royce got conned.

And once again, rather than take the opportunity to explore her ability to believe--and ours--Royce simply repeats her opening remark. "Sometimes we'll do anything for money," she says, and we wonder what she thinks has transpired between the last time she told us this and now.

It's not that Royce's tales lack humor. Indeed, they're often amusing. They have absurd little details, but she doesn't do much with them. They don't move the stories forward, add meaning, or reveal. They decorate.

Performing at Sheffield's (through January 23) on a nearly bare stage, Royce half-reads from scripts she's laid out across the space. Presumably these are different stories she chooses according to her mood and the audience. And some of them have nice moments and good lines. We believe these events really happened, and we believe the experiences have resonance for her, we just don't know what it is. Director Mary DeVeny should have more actively helped focus Royce's material.

The worst example of this lack of purpose was the story about Royce's conversion from Judaism to fundamentalist Christianity. She tells us this happened but never really explores the causes or consequences. Then, without much explanation, she tells us that Christianity stopped having meaning for her and she moved to Israel. These are fairly hard swings of the pendulum, but Royce talks about them as if they were equivalent to changing her hairstyle.

Most incredibly, once she's in Israel, the story revolves around cultural clashes between American Jews and Israelis--Royce completely sidesteps all the potential spiritual questions the first half of the tale set up. Amazingly, she ends the story without revealing in any way where she's at now, or why this journey of faith and geography has meaning.

There are other stories in Neurotic Splendor, but they're even less developed, certainly less compelling. I don't question Royce's ability to charm. I certainly don't question the value of her experiences. But I don't believe she's found a way to translate the meaning of those experiences for an audience.

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