Back Stage West, September 2, 1999
Written by Brad Schreiber

Say Cheese and Writing Out Loud
*Critic's Pick*

Phil Johnson has the most engrossing eyebrows in show biz. He's also got a helluva singing voice, energy to burn and a lunatic story that is punctuated by bursts of spasmodic, hysterical movement. So,when he decides to Say Cheese, it is decidedly bigger than life.

That's also an apt description of the pompous, hyperkinetic, knighted, theatre-of-the-cheesily-absurd director who, as he recounts it, once auditioned Phil and several other unfortunate actors for an improvisational production. In telling this tall tale, Johnson wisely brings us back into his own persona, as far as any reviewer may be able to tell, just enough to anchor the antics, which include such dictatorial dictums as "I want insemination!" when the actors don't give him what he wants. "Peel, my little onions, peel," was a directorial exhortation which sent the audience sideways.

Johnson startles us with his poignant yet polished version of "When My Ship Comes In," a lyrical break from his multi-character mayhem and one which we almost wish would lead into another song. The boy has Broadway chops and credits to boot, and the vision he conjures up of a totally bent, sort of sci-fi, surrealistic,improv musical puts a fitting capper on this force of nature and his material, co-written and directed by Artistic Director Jolene Adams.

The small but consistently excellent, living-room theatre of Actors Art also continually brings to the fore fine stage actors, able to strut their stuff in the series of monologues which preceded Johnson,
Writing Out Loud. Even with a few scripts in hand for some of these workshop performances, all acquit themselves honorably. Frank Uzzolino gives nice shadings to the controlled desperation of heartbreak in Hiatus, co-written with Adams, as he has been in the middle of "time out" with the fairer sex: "Ninety-eight per cent of the girls I meet do not findme interesting or attractive. But that two percent? Fanatical!"

The remaining one-person pieces deserve more space, with fine turns from Katharine Bennett, Dezhda Mountz, Grady Lee Richmond and especially Tara Lee Fray, whose writing and warped child persona in the piece
Me and Ramona has a freshness and off-beat quality. It characterizes this theatre's total commitment to new and memorable theatre, which in the case of their previous production of Dan Fante's Boiler Room, has brought them from a cozy, little living room in the Fairfax area to Off -Broadway, next Spring.