Merle, Ray, and Junior have, it seems, very little to do. Hanging out in their local roadhouse in an unnamed northern backwater, the three buddies sing, drink, and spew inane philosophy until they find their purpose for the evening: a stranger even drunker than they are. "Why don't he take his hat off?" cries Raymond (Bob Ernst), the group's feverish leader. After throwing ashtrays at the stranger's head, they take him on a joy ride, which leads to a little midnight target practice, a dip in an icy lake, and a road trip across Canada meant to reunite him with his AWOL wife. When they discover that the wife has not escaped into another man's arms but into the arms of the Lord via a religious convent, and that the still-sloshed stranger is not even her husband but her husband's killer, the men must come to terms with their own lost souls.
Put a few working-class men in a bar and set them to misbehaving and you have the first ingredient in many a drama, from O'Neill to Mamet. But when a playwright today resorts to such a demeaning and unprovocative depiction of a socioeconomic class, one assumes he or she must have ulterior motives. Maybe it's meant to create an allegory of our common fate as an insufferably misguided species, for example, or to lampoon the cliches usually heaped on working people. Surely, we are not meant to watch an entire play that depicts working-class people as stupid, drunken, spineless, sentimental, and self-aggrandizing and not wonder what the playwright's intention really is.
But such is the predicament that Quincy Long foists upon his audience. At turns caricatured and subtle, sentimental and arcane, his trio of besotted unemployed loggers resemble the foolish threesomes from Shakespeare's plays, albeit with two key distinctions. Shakespeare sets uneducated poor within a larger social body wherein they echo the ambitions of the usurping duke or the swooning of the lovelorn princess, thus linking their foibles to those of humanity as a whole. Shakespeare also endows them with their own brand of shrewd intelligence, which allows them to articulate subtler truths. In contrast, Long strands his lumpen buffoons in a socially isolated landscape without the scantest sense of self-direction or intelligence: "We are men without women, we are loggers without trees!" the gang chants in one of the strangely bombastic anthems that break the play's realistic façade.
The Joy of Going Somewhere Definite is about the misery of going nowhere fast. With the exception of Helene, the leader of a religious shelter, the characters don't know where they're headed, but that doesn't prevent them from yearning for a mission. But Long's tendency to mock undermines the poignancy of their wanderings. They yell, they proclaim absurd truisms, and they yell some more. In the end, despite each character's lack of individual agency, the universe gives them what they deserve. In the context of a very unflattering portrait of people who have no jobs, no education, and no apparent community, the New Age universe-knows-best moral smacks of middle-class condescension.
The acting and directing do little to dispel this philosophical fog bank. Despite their tremendous vitality, skills, and charms, the actors wield their down-home accents and low IQs like blunt axes. Magic Theater Artistic Director Mame Hunt's directorial debut exhibits a sharp eye for exuberant blocking, but also a taste for loud, overblown characters. The most sympathetic dramatic presence has no name; onstage sound man Jason Reinier punctuates the play with a flurry of slammed doors, footsteps, and spilling drinks hearkening back to the cozy days of radio drama. Between the silly songs, inventive soundscape, and dialogue that is gritty and awkward rather than clever and subtle, we never know exactly what theatrical world we've entered. Is it character-based realism, Beckett-esque symbolism, or a cartoon parody? Long might argue that such formal disorientation is central to his intention. And had he approached his characters with a little less contempt, perhaps these complexities would have proved more engaging. But he didn't, and in the end, we are left with working-class characters functioning as unsympathetic containers for windy existential concerns.
-- Carol Lloyd
Pictures of Lily
The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. By Jane Wagner. Directed by David Pangaro. Starring Brooks Oswald. At the University of San Francisco's Gill Theater, 2130 Fulton (at Cole), on an open-ended run. Call 422-6133.
Jane Wagner may be one of the most frequently quoted people on the Internet. The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, so full of single-line pieces of folk wisdom, thrives in slivers on home pages across the country. Wagner wrote Intelligent Life for Lily Tomlin, who performed it brilliantly enough on Broadway to scare off most imitators. Outside of Tomlin's video the show survives in fragments scattered in cyberspace, and in rare stage revivals like Brooks Oswald's at USF's Gill Theater.
Oswald is an undergraduate; Endangered Species Productions was recently set up to expose college players like her to the public. Moving onto a semiprofessional stage is a small step for an actor, but moving into the dozen or so characters Wagner developed for Tomlin is a giant leap that would strain almost anyone. The show focuses on Trudy, a philosophizing bag lady in Manhattan who has a psychic bond with some cross-dimensional aliens, thanks to a series of shock treatments. "Suddenly it was like my central nervous system had a patio addition out back," she says. The addition lets her see into the lives of other people, like Crissy the Aerobicist, Paul the Jock, Kate the Rich Bitch, Agnes Angst (the punk performance artist), Agnes' Southern grandparents, and a pair of prostitutes. Their intertwining lives give an impression of America in the aftermath of the '60s and '70s. The cartoonish characters also date the script as the meditation of a Liberal Dealing With the '80s; although in Tomlin's hands this was hilarious and pertinent stuff. But Oswald doesn't shade the characters well enough to lift them off the comics page. Her speech patterns don't change, and a few of her voices, like Kate's and especially Trudy's, are not observed at all -- they're cliched voices of the rich and poor. She also seems too nervous to milk the show's comedy; her delivery bulldozes punch lines and flattens most of Wagner's quotable morsels.
There are a few exceptions. Prostitute No. 2, with a frantic Long Island accent, comes off with real feeling, and so does the whole Angst family: the Southern grandparents and especially Agnes herself. Oswald's voice as a snotty young punk is better than Tomlin's, in fact -- full of the same desperation, but without the false tones. And Agnes' "candlelight service" performance piece has the climactic power it needs to end the first act. A skittish, colorful spotlight swings randomly over her rant about "will" and G. Gordon Liddy, "who in holding his hand over a lit candle said, 'The trick is not to mind it.' " With a painful sarcasm, she works through the rhyming monologue: "I don't mind I was born after the time of the crime known as Watergate/ And I must have missed out on those things that made America great." The scene suggests Oswald can act if she listens to her character; but Intelligent Life just has too many voices for a young actor to follow.
-- Michael Scott Moore
The Economics of Satire
Killing Time. Written and performed by the San Francisco Mime Troupe. At various venues, through Sept. 1. Call 646-0639.
The Mime Troupe, that waning heart of pinko San Francisco, has always commented on the ebb and flow of free-market capitalism from afar, but now the group must monitor the tide in its own veins. In the last few years, the 35-year-old collective has watched as the money it gets from various governmental sources has shrunk to 46 percent of its budget. Now the free shows in the park must depend on generous audiences to keep the company alive. The group's observation that unhappy endings almost always elicit less in the way of contributions than happy endings might have led lesser artists (and better capitalists) to cave in to marketplace pressures. But the ever intrepid Mimers have crafted an ending for Killing Time as disquieting as our current economy deserves.
Megalomaniac CEO Jack Belch (Ed Holmes) wants to take over the world while homeless Desert Storm veteran Margaret (played with smart self-assurance by Velina Brown) has a 10-point plan to save the nation. Caught in between is an unemployed skateboarder, 27-year-old Jacob (the delightfully deadpan Michael Oosterom), who bemoans his skyrocketing rent and impending old age. "If I'm not going to do something great," he reasons, "it may as well have benefits." After his roommates leave without notice and his girlfriend runs off with a Rastafarian redwood activist, Jacob allows Margaret to move in. When he lands a job at Bohemian Grove, the summer camp for ruling white men, all the parties converge in a forest battle that includes Alan Greenspan in drag and activists swinging on a Tarzan rope.
The play suffers from an undeveloped plot and an abrupt ending, but Killing Time serves up plenty of delicious satiric poison along the way. When Margaret asks for 50 cents, gay roommate Albert (a sparkling Conrad Cimarra) holds up his Nordstrom bags and replies sheepishly, "I would, but my hands are full." When Albert moves out with his aunt's television, Jacob and his girlfriend clutch each other and weep.
When the play pokes fun at middle-class decadence, the script works best. The old-fashioned progressive melodrama that pits the good homeless person against the evil CEO, the good black woman against the bad white man, does not fare quite so well. When Margaret posits her conspiracy theory about "140 rich white men" who are staging a "slow-motion coup d'etat," you may cringe. But think about Bill Gates and reconsider. In this era of techno-optimism and consumer confidence, the us-against-them story has become increasingly unfashionable even as it becomes more and more accurate. Hence the dilemma with overtly political theater nowadays: There isn't much room to move between our current narrative demands for moral ambiguity and the stark reality of our current political situation. With economic boosterism at an all-time high and equality at an all-time low, stories about economic injustice may be especially difficult to buy -- not because they are so unbelievable, but because we fear we can't afford them.
-- Carol Lloyd