"Advertising, the poetry of America!" booms a broadcaster's smarmy voice from the darkness. A gaseous explosion seems to spit a well-dressed, bespectacled woman into a spotlight. She tells us she's an advertising writer whose copy is so riveting, her commercials keep viewers from going to the bathroom.
"They call me Queen of the Bowels!" she declares proudly.
The monologue is a perplexing piece of theatrical writing: rife with witticisms, succinct in its parts, and yet unmoored emotionally. Nowadays, young playwrights rarely exhibit such a flair for cleverness; most venture into a quieter linguistic territory, concentrating on thematic mapping and the subtle contours of character. But Malachy Walsh's first play, Thinking, LTD., bears all marks of his 10 years spent in the advertising trenches. He understands how to craft an image, whip out a reversal, and deliver a punch line. But he's still grappling with the ephemeral building blocks of playwriting: plots that shift invisibly, themes that resist summation, and characters that unfold rather than pop out like candy bars from a machine.
Thinking, LTD. begins promisingly enough. A froggy-voiced, impish Cameron Galloway plays a writer whose company is bought out by the title conglomerate, an evil marketing organization that buys and closes advertising firms in a global plan to make advertising extinct. To keep the firm alive, her boss presents her with the ultimate challenge: write an ad to sell the very idea of advertising. She has 24 hours to do it.
To this point, Walsh's treatment of advertising marries enthusiasm and cynicism to good effect. Walsh revels in the single-minded amorality of his industry. "Do you remember the Nazis?" asks the Thinking, Ltd. CEO. "Now there were a people with confidence!"
Gradually, however, the story slips into a more earnest, less incisive style. The lively satire about advertising turns into a tired tale of creative frustration. When the writer faints from overexertion, the "Idea Fairy" appears to teach her how to silence the inner critic and play.
Line by line, Thinking, LTD. fizzes with ironic panache, but the story lacks an emotional logic rich enough to give the actors subtext to build on as well as text to speak. One ad writer's creative block can't give emotional fuel to an entire play. Suddenly, Walsh's wicked ambivalence disappears behind the theatrical equivalent of a self-help guide to unblocking your creativity.
The actors tend to overplay their roles, too often lapsing into grotesque stereotyping and unnecessary shouting. Despite her many witty lines, Galloway is particularly caricaturish, perpetually whining with her glasses awkwardly halfway down her nose. Most of the other actors are just loud, hammering us with the words rather than allowing us to discover the humor ourselves. (Exceptions: Idea Fairy Eric Schniewind, and Kurt Bodden as Galloway's boyfriend.) Walsh told me over the phone that he was inspired to write the play after watching the actors in an improvisation workshop. To take advantage of their background, he made the unusual decision to build several audience-directed improvisations into the climax of the play.
Once the actors fall into their natural habitat, the self-conscious stereotypes vanish, to reveal hitherto unseen talents. Joan Carter -- previously shrill and ham-fisted as Galloway's mother -- suddenly emerges as a cool-eyed chameleon of comedy. Perhaps with a less vaudevillian approach, director John Warren could have elicited similar intelligence from all his actors; instead Thinking, LTD. only offers an uneasy pastiche -- part social satire, part 12-step program for creative constipation.
-- Carol Lloyd
Civil Sex. Written and directed by Brian Freeman. Starring Freeman, Duane Boutte, and Michael Stebbins. At the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd Street), through Nov. 30. Call 826-5750.
Civil Sex was first called Looking for Bayard, apparently with the idea that the show would try to nail down the multitalented and mercurial Bayard Rustin in about the same way Al Pacino's movie Looking for Richard tried to pin down Shakespeare's Richard III. The comparison is good: In fact, I like the early title better, because Rustin's afterimage is as complicated as a Shakespeare character. He was an organizer of the March on Washington; a friend and mentor of Martin Luther King Jr.; an anti-nuclear pacifist; and a homosexual, whose memory has been greased by now with so much scandal, political will, and plain anonymity that the actual man leaps out of your hand like a wriggling fish.
Civil Sex is framed loosely by a speech by Strom Thurmond to Congress in 1963 condemning Rustin for being not just radical but "immoral" -- he'd been arrested on a morals charge 10 years earlier for having sex with two men late one night in a Pasadena parking lot. This puts more focus on Rustin's sex life than I think Rustin himself would have liked. Spending the rest of the show proving that Rustin was really a very moral guy in spite of what a bonehead like Thurmond called him doesn't make a very insightful hook. But, happily, Rustin was also a fascinating man, and as long as Civil Sex focuses on the details of his career the show feels like the most interesting documentary Ken Burns will never make.
The Burns-ish touch in Civil Sex is a series of acted-out transcriptions from interviews that playwright Brian Freeman conducted last summer with some of Rustin's living friends. Freeman plays a few of these people -- like Jonathan Brice, a retired piano player, and Ralph DiGhia, an old member of the War Resisters League -- with so much warmth and humor you get the impression that political activism was a far more colorful thing in the '50s and '60s than it is now.
The play's most engaging scene shows Rustin debating Malcolm X on a 1961 radio show. Rustin argues against Malcolm's separatism by sarcastically asking which 10 or 12 of the 50 states he expects the government to hand over to black America, and Malcolm counters -- both in the radio show and, you might say, in the long selective gaze of history -- with the unanswerable charge that Rustin's head has been "colonized" by the white man. Something about this scene unearths Rustin's essence, making a lot of the sexual history, never mind Strom Thurmond, seem gratuitous. Rustin thought his own blackness and queerness were just aspects of a large and complex personality, and the sharpest impression left by Civil Sex is the distance the American left has retreated from this ideal.