'Accident' a public confessional

by Lisa Traiger
WJW Arts Correspondent

Theater J couldn't have picked a better time to present Accident, the comic adventures of rock singer/songwriter and cellist Amy Ziff. Today, many Jews across the land will find themselves in synagogues making a cheshbon hanefesh, an account of their deeds, the good and the bad, in bidding goodbye to the old year and welcoming in a new one.

Ziff's Accident is her one-woman public confessional with music and spot-on recounting of the good, the bad and the absurd accidents that have confounded her throughout the years. Plus, she's got PowerPoint slides for any Washington wonks who wander into Studio Theater's raw Stage 4 space, which Theater J is renting while its main stage reprises its summer hit, Pangs of the Messiah.

One-third of the brash and irreverent rock trio Betty, which was born during the '80s go-go rocker girl boom, Ziff is a bad girl with a soft spot for what matters most: family. Growing up in the wilds of Fairfax County before a Jewish community center made it into Northern Virginia, Ziff and her guitarist/singer sister, Elizabeth, had plenty of high times in and around D.C., waitressing, answering phones, testing "magic" mushrooms and playing ERA and AIDS benefits to support their music habit.

When lanky Alyson Palmer joined them, Betty became a mainstay of the D.C. music scene before the trio headed off for fame, fortune and further dysfunction in New York. That story is told with insouciant flair in the rock 'n' roll musical Betty Rules, which made two acclaimed stops at Theater J in recent years.

Accident, Ziff's second solo show, takes up where Betty Rules left off. Ziff is still her quirky, haywirey self, her hair a fabulous Medusa-swirl of bleached blond dreadlocks, her wardrobe decidedly trendy black-and-white screen-printed tennis shoes and a low-cut tunic over leggings, her makeup, a swoop of glittery eye shadow.

With references to some old D.C. haunts ‹ Food for Thought co-op restaurant, Dupont Circle, Linda Blair in The Exorcist (remember those steps in Georgetown and that tinkling theme music?) Accident feels like a homecoming in more ways than one. There's an Amy mannequin splayed out in the claw-footed bathtub, a ribbon of red dripping from its wrist. And Ziff mentions her "shaving accident" when she slipped in the tub and cut her wrists on her razor the impetus for this taking account of her life. Ziff unabashedly examines the pros and cons of her life, bullet point by bullet point, her tics and foibles, blasphemes and bad decisions all projected on the theater's back wall.

Ziff is a terrific impersonator with wide vocal range and an ear for accents from flat Midwestern disapproving tones of secretaries inquiring about her hairdo, to a too-talkative airport lunch counter cashier at Heathrow Airport, from the judgmental cluck of a straight-laced gynecologist to the nasally Brooklyn, N.Y.-accented, advice-giving grandmother.

She moves, with direction from Rebecca Asher, from character to caricature and back with ease while unveiling her psychological, social and sexual weaknesses with disarming and laughable candor. She sometimes play it blue, but with her own broad feminist streak.

Ziff's battle with existential demons and turmoils from her accident-prone life fear-inducing airline flights, head-over-handlebars bike crashes as a kid, bad pasta-induced food poisoning, an unplanned pregnancy turn into funny but meaningful fodder. And, like the poignant tribute to Ziff's mother in Betty Rules, Accident, too, unveils its soft side when Ziff again recalls her mother, whose advice and support were always right in hindsight.

Regrettably, Ziff only picks up the cello once during the hour-long evening, paying homage to her mother and other relatives now gone.

The work wanes just slightly in its final moments, but some tightening and refocusing should bring Ziff the accolades she deserves for laying bare the funny, rueful, engaging experiences that make Accident worth the trip.

Accident is onstage through Sept. 23, at Studio Theatre Stage 4 in the District. Tickets, at $25, are available by calling 800-494-TIXS or at www.boxofficetickets.com. For patrons under 25, tickets are $15 at the door or online.


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