Park Slope

Theater Review: ‘Murder At The Food Coop’ Boasts Neighborhood’s Horniest Organic Freezer

murder at the food coop
Detective Dick Johnson (Doug Chitel) is about to solve the murder of the title when the Man with Dog (playwright Gersh Kuntzman in a cameo) enters with his comfort animal, Trotsky, and solves the case for him in Neo-Shtick Theater’s ‘Murder at the Food Coop,’ now at the New York International Fringe Festival. (Credit: Andy Campbell)

And there it is sitting center stage in all its yak manure-fueled glory: The Gore 3000.

That’s the freezer which keeps the kale and kohlrabi krispy and the clandestine affairs among Park Slope Food Coop Members hot and heavy.

Murder at the Food Coop opened mid-August as part of the The New York International Fringe Festival and has already garnered accolades. The “whodunnit” has been named a “Fringe Fave” and will be giving an additional performance on Sunday, August 28.

Written by Daily News columnist and long-time Park Slope Food Coop member Gersh Kuntzman in collaboration with lyricist and composer Marc Dinkin, the show uses the tropes of the traditional murder mystery and sprinkles it with healthy doses of melodrama, farce, and tongue-buried-deeply-in-cheek ribaldry, taking aim at our neighborhood’s well-known, left-leaning neighborhood institution.

The plot begins with the murder of Coop founder Doris Chiang Kai Shenkman (played by a pleasurably feisty Alex Covington) whose body is found in the Gore 3000.

Every character soon becomes a suspect — including Elvis-esque Johnny Endive (Brian A. Mason); hippie-crunch mamma Amaranth Windchime (Erin Evers); okra-fetishist Schmuel Guevara (Johari Frasier); Ali al-Muhammad, a Palestinian (Michael Gellert); his Jewish squeeze Muffy Golda Meir Finkelberg (Alaina Fragoso); in-house journalist for the Coop’s Weekly Composter Jackie Sojourner Truth Smythe (Brittany Shaffer), and the well-meaning and hyper-sensitive Jerry (Max King).

Detective Dick Johnson (played by the impressive Doug Chitel) of the 78th Precinct enters the Coop to solve the mysterious death, however he chafes against the crew’s curiouser and curiouser dogma and morés. They play by their very own Robert’s Rules of Order.

Gersh Kuntzman
Gersh Kuntzman, co-creator of ‘Murder At The Food Coop’ and card-carrying Coop member. (Photo by Donny Levit / Park Slope Stoop)

The story is stitched together by Marc Dinkin’s musical score, an upbeat piano/guitar-driven set of songs which is often melodic, but at times subverts the sunny musical sound with trills of minor keys, adding layers to the broad comedic lyrics. This is a production laced heavily with jazz hands and choreography, winking not-ever-so-gently at the audience.

As Detective Dick Johnson, Doug Chitel’s performance captures the language’s rhythm and hard-boiled style, vigorously synchronizing with Kuntzman’s rapid-fire one liners. “Listen punk, I shit bigger than you!” barks Johnson, as if he were about to bite off a coop member’s man-bun.

The struggle in this production is that the sound-deadening Flamboyán Theater becomes a foe to the actors trying to keep up with the broad, madcap style the musical demands. Lines get swallowed up. It’s at times hard to tell whether the performance space is the primary causes of the problem or if the presentational style of the play was not effectively articulated by the ensemble.

However director Eric Oleson works effectively to have the action flow rapidly throughout the show — a crucial ingredient to the farce structure and rhythm of the play.

The most intriguing plot element in this play revolves around the controversial love affair between the Palestinian coop member Ali al-Muhammad and his Jewish lover, Muffy Golda Meir Finkelberg.

The production comes months after the real-world coop judicial system suspended four members for “disrupting or obstructing Coop activities” in a 2015 meeting which focused on whether or not products of the Israeli company Sodastream should be boycotted.

Finkelberg and al-Muhammad rendez-vous inside the Gore 3000 to consummate their love affair. Their ballad “In The Freezer” begins with “My people hate your people and your people hate mine” and lays out the Middle East crisis right there on the table. And that’s the highlight of this production.

Discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can make even the most sophisticated intellectual sound uncouth, hasty, and discourteous. Kuntzman should be lauded for addressing this subject in a high-farce context.

Because if we can’t laugh at it, what else can we do but cry?

“In the freezer no one looks, as we dance beneath the hooks, they can take all of their ancient books and throw them away,” sing the Gaza Strip-crossed lovers.

Marc Dinkin
Co-writer Marc Dinkin searches for clues in the daikon. (Photo via Gersh Kuntzman)

Without giving away the ending, Man with Dog (playwright Gersh Kuntzman in a cameo) enters towards the final moments with crucial information, providing a deus ex machina which works well with the play’s style. And a few surprises are thrown in for good measure.

The NYC Fringe Festival has been around for 20 years now, and I’ve always viewed it as an opportunity to provide a full-fledged production opportunity for works-in-progress. Murder at the Food Coop is not fully-fleshed out yet. Song lyrics can be economized, and a few characters can be combined to polish the plot structure.

However Kuntzman and Dinkin have rich material here, and it’s easy to see past some of the early developmental knots which naturally come when constructing a piece of strong theater.

I do hope the play can find a performance home for Park Slope, and it’d be absolutely dreamy to see an environmental production of it in the real Coop itself. Something tells me Robert’s Rules of Order may make that realization a bit tricky.

“Dying is easy. Comedy is hard,” goes the apothegm. Any play that mixes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and farcical elements with good semen jokes should be taken seriously.

The Theater Rundown: Neo-Shtick Theater’s Murder at the Food Coop by Gersh Kuntzman and Marc Dinkin. Directed by Eric Oleson. Part of The New York International Fringe Festival
Where: Flamboyán Theater at the Clemente, Venue 2. 107 Suffolk Street (between Rivington and Delancey) in Manhattan.
When: Two remaining performances: Thursday, August 25 at 6:15pm and Sunday, August 28 at 2:45pm
Ticket Information: $18, Purchase tickets online here for August 25 and purchase tickets online here for August 28(Note: No late seating)

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