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Just Desserts 

An imaginative, pie-filled play feels a bit undercooked

Wednesday, Oct 11 2006
Don McLean has remained famously cryptic about the meaning of his famous 1971 song "American Pie." "It means I never have to work again" has been his stock response. While an entire cottage industry has grown up around arguing over the significance of lines like "Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry," most people agree on what the song's about: the end of an era and a general hankering after a lost, possibly mythical past.

Something similar could be said about Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's Colorado, a murky comedy involving a missing teen beauty queen, shattered dreams, and pie as a metaphor for suffering. If McLean's song laments the day the music died, Nachtrieb's play — with its cast of vacuous, self-obsessed suburbanites — paints an even sorrier picture of the day after.

In Nachtrieb's post-Apocalyptic world, the pie becomes a symbol for all that is disingenuous and misguided in American culture. When "Miss Late Teen Colorado" Tracey Ackhart mysteriously disappears a day shy of the national finals, the local community rallies in support — through an emotional outpouring of baked goods. Within 24 hours, the Ackharts' home has become so deluged with pies from concerned neighbors that the family could start a patisserie. Yet not a single person, other than some police officers, stays for longer than the time it takes to ring the doorbell and dump warm pastry on the stoop.

In a brief moment of enlightenment, Tracey's father, Ron, recognizes the neighborly pie-giving for what it really is — an empty-calorie gesture: "Your life sucks, so here's a pie," he comments. But to Tracey's strung-out mother, Grace, the pastry is a powerful symbol, to be preserved for posterity, not eaten. "This is a token of support. Not food," Grace barks at her husband and 14-year-old son, Travis, while creating a shrine out of several pies and a photograph of her beloved daughter.

The loss of the American Dream isn't new theatrical fare; American playwrights have long explored — both for tragic and comic effect — that loss through the prism of the dysfunctional family. But Nachtrieb may be the first to attempt the feat with the aid of Pillsbury and Betty Crocker. The pie image is startling, not only because a deluge of pies is absurdly funny, but also because of its disenchanted view of the pie as a symbol of all that is wholesome, bountiful, and sweet in American culture. Just as McLean sings "Bye, bye, Miss American Pie," so Nachtrieb bids his own saccharine-coated Miss American Pie a fond adieu.

Yet for all the crunchy pecan and silky chocolate cream, Nachtrieb's play remains underbaked, with its stereotypical characters, sitcomlike scenarios, and moments of clunky exposition. The work contains many of the ingredients of a great play, but they don't blend together into a satisfying whole.

Unlike the weirdos who populate, say, a Wes Anderson film, the Ackharts are a formulaic bunch: Travis is your average repressed teen — a blimpy, sexually confused misfit with an unhealthy infatuation for a brassy television personality (Maury Povich). Ron is the henpecked husband with the boring job, who divides his time between reading self-help books and whining about his unfulfilled life. Grace, meanwhile, is the quintessential pushy stage mom. Dealing with her own thwarted aspirations by focusing on her daughter's "career," Grace is as ambitious for Tracey as she is for herself.

Although Tracey displays many of the cliched Valley Girl traits (the big boobs, bad temper, and devotion to the god of the mall) so often exploited in teen movies like Clueless and, fittingly, the American Pie franchise, Tracey is the most sharply drawn of Nachtrieb's creations. She steals many of the best lines, from calling her brother "an annoying Helen Keller" to avowing that "physical fitness is fundamental to the celebration of womanhood, and I intend to be part of that celebration." Brought to life by the voluptuous Adrienne Papp, the character delivers each cloying, overripe metaphor in her beauty (or rather, "bee-oody") pageant competition speech — on the theme of apples — with the perfect mix of misguided earnestness and self-indulgent, plastic smugness. "As I walk through Albertsons," Papp recites with a pert wiggle of the chest and a flutter of the eyelashes, "I find this tapestry of fruit laid before me, heaped high and mighty, as high as the lofty hopes every child born in this state has the potential to possess. ... " So great in its awfulness, Nachtrieb's monologue tells us everything we need to know about Tracey. As far as apples go, this one's rotten to the core.

Unfortunately, the playwright has so much fun tapping into his inner teen beauty queen that he lets his Traceyisms run away with him. For instance, when Grace (whose turns of phrase are normally unadorned and blunt) suddenly blurts out, "I don't remember the Ron I married in college being so dark, so cruel, spreading this vicious, cynical jam you're spreading on me right now like I'm some muffin!" it's as if she's channeling Tracey. If mother and daughter more consistently spoke like each other, this might be funny. But used sporadically, such extravagant similes look misattributed.

Colorado lacks much of the sly irony, polish, and depth of Hunter Gatherers, the last of the writer's plays seen by Bay Area audiences. You have only to compare the endings of the two works to see the difference. While watching the protagonist exit the stage into a tragicomic storybook version of Eden in the closing moments of Hunter Gatherers left much to the imagination, Colorado takes "burying the hatchet" too literally. I don't want to give away the plot, but the sudden, squeaky optimism of the tidy conclusion rings both hasty and false. That Colorado was written several years before Hunter Gatherers comes as no surprise.

Colorado may not be the playwright's best work to date, but I'm not for a minute suggesting that Nachtrieb should eat humble pie. The image of all those untouched desserts cluttering up the Ackharts' house testifies to the writer's fluid imagination, even if the levee on this occasion was rather dry.

About The Author

Chloe Veltman


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