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Holy Madness 

Frank Wortham has fun with his gallery of frantic, bug-eyed eccentrics

Wednesday, Dec 13 2000
It's hard to find anyone who doesn't like Frank Wortham. He's an underground phenomenon, which means that certain people will see his shows no matter what the critics say. Since he speaks for his twentysomething generation, his audiences laugh and scream as if he's a talented member of the family. The critics, not to be outdone, gave him two awards last year for his solo show, House of Lucky. I happen to like him, too. Lucky was Wortham's manic, bug-eyed assault on bohemian San Francisco -- featuring an inadvertently drugged-up hipster, Harper Lee -- and Great Religions of America is a manic, bug-eyed treatment of another hapless protagonist, Max, who works as a receptionist for a mediation firm. Both shows feature Wortham alone on a bare stage, playing a gallery of exaggerated characters.

Religions starts with a Parisian reverie. Max imagines cheap wine, Left Bank evenings, a dingy apartment with his hypothetical girlfriend, and a widowed fortuneteller to marry them. "I'll grow a mustache like Salvador Dali," he says, continuing what must be the most remarkable string of references to Dali in Bay Area theater history (see last week's Stage). While Max dreams, a client clears her throat, and we learn that Max is an aspiring law student working for the crotchety and tyrannical Judge Smoot, in the dwindling hope that Smoot will write him a good recommendation to Yale.

Smoot was "mediator on the case that gave the Gap control of our public schools," according to Max. He was in Vietnam, but behaves like certain old men who were in Korea or World War II. (There isn't a hint of the '60s in him.) Now and then the judge asks Max to find his pills, or delivers a lecture on being lazy. He's a superego figure, the cartoonish voice of duty and guilt. "War galvanizes the spirit," he explains to Max, "turns boys into men, and reminds women what men are good for."

"What's that, judge?"


The client is Miss Lillybelle Adeline, a bass player for Billy Razor, the satanic rock star, as well as Razor's steaming ex-girlfriend. She flirts with Max and complains about Razor, who's late. He and Lillybelle need mediating. She wants to leave the band, but he won't let her go until she relinquishes a lucky charm -- a bottle cap popped by Elvis -- that Razor thinks he needs.

This sounds like thin stew for a story, and it is. Who cares about a bottle cap? But Billy Razor turns out to be a pompous megalomaniac with fantasies of world domination who cares passionately about the bottle cap, and is willing to give Max $666,000 to get it back from Lillybelle under circumstances outside the mediation room. With 666 grand, Max could go to Paris. He could also (more to the point) quit working for Snoot.

The stew is still thin. But what's fun about Wortham is not his narrative ability. The whole point of seeing his shows is to watch his characters fly into crazed fugues of raving fantasy. When Lillybelle tells Max about wanting to lead her own band, she imagines not just onstage glory but a thorough dream of goddesshood, of herself ushering in a worldwide era of matriarchal pleasure and peace. Even Judge Snoot -- bent forward, lips working, full of rhetoric about selflessness -- has an overheated speech about Vietnam, describing "what God must feel when he pulls the trigger on earthquakes." And Billy Razor, the tempter, encourages Max to take the money by invoking "skyscrapers of men who wanted to be actors and astronauts, women who wanted to be presidents. ... The pursuit of happiness, equality, justice, and all the other great religions of America are not worth your faith."

Unfortunately, this grandly cynical pronouncement just sits there. Wortham doesn't explore justice or religion or anything else in Great Religions. Max wants only his own fulfillment. He's a cringing, callow office boy, still a virgin, who needs to be coaxed from his shell but who sees that Razor and Snoot are equally out of their minds. In that sense -- OK, in every sense -- the show feels young. Wortham flirts with his theme but shies away from any serious discussion of what it means to be 24 and confused, like Max, inheriting America's square tradition as well as its pop-culture afflatus.


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