LIFE IS TOO short for plays that make you fantasize about intermission--especially when it never comes. And real life is too funny for comedies that don't make you laugh. If that sounds bitter, it's only half the fault of Good News About Third World Shoes. But during this nauseating stretch from December to May, entertainment is more important than ever, and so-so just doesn't cut it.
It seems like such a fresh and perverse idea: a comedy about the exploitation of Central American laborers, and the marketing campaigns that accompany our government's military ejaculations of late. But these West-Coast playwrights are following a formula developed long ago by the San Francisco Mime Troupe: Select a topic of current political interest, inject a low dosage of cynicism, take advantage of as many obvious laughs as you can, and do it for as little money as possible.
Certainly there's no crime in low-budget theater; formula is fine, too, as is obvious subject matter--as long as they're backed up by wicked writing and savvy performers. In the case of Good News, it's a game of hit-and-miss, and unfortunately, most of my laughs were from bemusement.
We're dumped into the midst of some zany chaos that's supposed to be funny, and throughout the first act I found myself wondering where any of it was leading. Apparently, Sonia Braga look-alike Kitty Marie is the calculating CEO of Flash Athletic, a multinational shoe firm with a familiar logo, an entirely unoriginal motto ("Work hard. Play hard."), and some sweatshops and landholdings down in Guanarigua. Trouble is, Guanarigua's hunky pinko president, Pizurno, wants to nationalize things a bit, so Kitty Marie decides to organize a surgical coup with the help of the CIA.
The CIA snoops wear dark shades and say things like, "The web is spun. The bobcat is purring. The shark is in the aquarium." But they also walk into doors like people desperate for a laugh. Marquetta Senters has a strong farcical handle on her role as a radical shoe-
factory worker with great hair, but
as a hateful ad-agency geek, she's
simply unfunny. Ric Oquita is rather lovable as both Pizurno and an American baseball star. Unfortunately, the two whiz-kid ad folks (Quimby Lombardozzi and Patrick Scott) who are suckered into marketing the invasion of Guanarigua aren't as strong. They read starchy lines ("I'm tired of selling the viewpoints of corporate greed") with about as much flair as they were written, which is kind of a shame. Such a poisonous topic deserves an equally poisonous pen.
A MUCH FINER instrument produced Not Without Laughter--so fine, in fact, that it moves us to tears with utterly simple observations about life. Adapted for the stage by Syl Jones from Langston Hughes's semi-autobiographical first novel, the play follows an African-American boy's youth in rural Kansas with his grandmother, and his move to Chicago with his parents after her death. Adam Ward is winning as the boy, Sandy, as is R. Terrance Briscoe, who plays his best friend. Sandy lives on two planes: the hard-edged one where he's called a pickaninny, where people die, and he works a drudge hotel job; and another one where the everyday morphs into poetry. Sandy's imaginary mentor, B. Mused (Gregory L. Brown), teaches him about blues music--"It's the sound of your insides, turned out"--and enables him to visualize what grown-ups do behind closed doors or on the edge of town.
Despite a jumbled start and a few sound problems, by play's end, we're swept away and wish the story would continue. Director Debra Wicks's excellent production allows a glimpse into a secret place, the otherworld where a writer lives half his life. In this writer's case, that's a diamond mine.
AND WHILE WE'RE on the topic of fabulous American writers adapted for the stage, I was amazed by the Great American History Theatre's production of Willa Cather's O Pioneers!: amazed that I could barely find Cather among the production's strained backdrops, dissonant choral singing, tortured Swedish accents, and two-toned acting. Sometimes, there's just no good reason to try and translate genius. Read the book.
Good News About Third World Shoes closes March 23 (at earliest); call 338-6131.Not Without Laughter closes April 19; call 874-0400.O Pioneers! closes April 6; call 292-4323.