Rhythmland has lost its beat. I don't know if this old roller rink in northeast Minneapolis has any personal meaning for you, but for me the shuttering of its doors a few months ago elicited no small amount of sadness. Let me take a moment to dab my moist eyes and tell you why: A decade ago, I helped organize many a roller disco there. Generally, these efforts were intended to raise money for the Emma Center, an anarchist community group in Powderhorn Park, and I have many happy--albeit strange--memories of disco punks, swathed in self-constructed costumes of clear plastic and gray duct tape, orbiting in elegant circles as Anita Ward sang "Ring My Bell" over the sound system. Now, security problems on weekend nights have forced the rink's end; at last notice, an Indian grocer was in negotiations to take over the space.
I suppose you would have to be either an avid roller skater or a theatergoer in the Twin Cities to know about the darkening of this particular business. I am, as you know, the latter, and so the news came to me in the form of a comment by director Peter Rothstein. It has been a busy few weeks for Rothstein, as he has directed two plays that opened within seven days of each other: Theatre Latté Da's production of The Rink and the University Theatre's production of Ring Round the Moon. I caught up with Rothstein, a slight man with pointed features and a somewhat giddy manner, after the opening night of the latter, and mentioned to him that I had seen the former the previous evening. "That seems like enough Rothstein for one week," he said, or something to that effect, which I only half heard, as I was already babbling about the set for The Rink.
Whenever I want to avoid the question of "How did you like it?" I start talking about the scenery, but in this case, the set design, by Mark Hauck, is genuinely excellent. Hauck also designed the set for last year's Latté Da production of The Death of Bessie Smith, and he is capable of doing wonderful things with the Loring Playhouse's limitations. Employing an optical illusion created through the placement of lighting (it's called "forced perspective"), the smoky blues club of Bessie Smith seemed to drift back forever. With The Rink, Hauck has built an ornate skating floor, complete with painted wooden rink, pipe organ, and a substantial clutter of roller skates and hand-painted signs.
"Those all came from Rhythmland," Rothstein told me. "We found out it was closing, so we asked them what they were going to do with all that old stuff." I felt the way people must feel when they overhear a casual conversation that contains the news that a childhood friend has passed away.
I suppose it is fitting that the wheels, laces, and leather of Rhythmland have wound up as a part of the pretty set for The Rink--it is, after all, a musical about the closing of a family-owned roller rink--but I am not entirely satisfied that this is a fitting memorial. The Rink is, I'm afraid, a pretty stupid play.
The Rink opened on Broadway in 1984 as a star vehicle for Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli, and, while Latté Da's press packet claims the show opened to rave reviews, they either haven't read the reviews or have decided to fib a little. In fact, the original production was lambasted by negative press (Frank Rich in the New York Times: "The show's running time is forever and a day. The turgid, sour new musical...is a curious affair....No glossy Broadway professionalism can mask the work's phony, at times mean-spirited content--or give credence to its empty pretensions."). Internal problems also plagued The Rink, including the defection of a then alcohol- and drug-addled Minnelli. The show would close after a disappointing run of 204 performances.
This is not to say that playwright Terrance McNally, who wrote the book, and songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb gave the musical anything less than a decent college try. There's some clever stuff in here, including McNally's use of an all-male supporting cast to play a rogue's gallery of supporting characters, including a number of female roles. But it suffers from a "weak book," to use the polite phrase. McNally writes of a rather glum hippie (played in this latest production by Erin Schwab, sounding less like Bette Midler than in previous local appearances) who returns to her childhood home, a roller rink on the Eastern seaboard, to discover that her sharp-tongued mother (community-theater veteran Denise Tabet) has sold the building and plans to have it demolished. Director Rothstein stages this material with high energy, sending the cast spinning in cheery circles around the performance areas. Sometimes they even leap over each other on their skates like some sort of low-budget Starlight Express. Indeed, there is something a little saddening about seeing so much energy devoted to a meager story, and seeing brassy actors such as Schwab and Tabet battling over weak plot contrivances.
But battle they do as they sing to each other, and then they muse aloud as to how their relationship has soured, and then they sing a little more. And then the flashbacks start. It turns out the hippie's father (David A. Anderson) has deteriorated from being a wistful romantic (he performs a syrupy and sentimental song called "Blue Crystal" to demonstrate the point) into a souse. No explanation is offered, except that he went off to Korea. And so every time he misbehaves, the remainder of the cast shake their heads sadly and mutter a vague, "Something happened during the war." The first casualty of war, it seems, is solid plotting.
The flashbacks continue, of course, until both mother and daughter realize where they went woefully wrong and enjoy a tearful embrace, and neither God nor McNally could make this sort of plot, redolent of the worst excesses of melodrama, palatable. I would suggest, instead, that Theater Latté Da take the whole set--skates, hand-painted signs, and the remaining kit and caboodle--over to the Great American History Theatre and mount a production there about the closing of Rhythmland. I am certain that there is some genuine pathos to be found in that story.