Against the Universe

Don't make him raise his voice: Brian Baumgartner as the Heckler

Don't make him raise his voice: Brian Baumgartner as the Heckler

Playwright Bill Corbett knows a thing or two about heckling--he spent several years giving voice to the character Crow on Mystery Science Theater 3000. In so doing, Corbett helped to spawn a heckling trend called "mistying," an acronymic description of what audiences do by providing a nonstop stream of sardonic commentary on whatever is being viewed. This sort of relentless gag-making is a battle between the clever and the infuriating, with infuriating often emerging as the clear victor, by a knockout in the early rounds. Ask anyone who has found himself seated in front of a television next to some precocious ten-year-old as she rattles off quip after quip at the expense of poor Ariel in The Little Mermaid. That poor baby sitter will tell you the jokes just keep coming, growing shriller and more brazen, long after it has ceased being funny, after the last credit has rolled, even. The experience can be an alarming one: You end up staring at the child, dumbfounded by her incessant nattering, wondering if there isn't a drug marketed to reduce this sort of obsessive logorrhea.

It is fitting, then, that the main character in Corbett's new play, the Eye of the Storm-produced Heckler, likewise suffers from a compulsive urge to rise in public and scream his opinions. But Corbett's heckler, played by Brian Baumgartner, is of an older variety than the gang of cultural meta-commentators spawned by MST3K. He's the sort of oversized gasbag that floats into political rallies, buoyant with a sense of righteousness, to shout down the speakers. These are the Hindenburgs of the political community, guaranteed to self-destruct in a spectacularly public way.

And Corbett's heckler shows all the signs of public immolation early on: Baumgartner plays him as an amicable but maladjusted loner, a dumpy misfit in an ugly suit who is given to accidentally humiliating himself when trying to communicate with anyone on a one-on-one basis. As written by Corbett, the heckler lives alone with a ratlike puppy, working as a busboy in a Chinese restaurant by day and spending hours on vocal exercises every night, rehearsing his self-ordained mission to confront corruption and hypocrisy.

If there is something monumentally creepy about this, there is also something liberating, and Corbett knows it. Heckler is written as a one-man show, entirely from the eponymous lead's point of view, which is a sensible decision. Corbett gives his character a few lovely speeches about humanity's growing disconnection from its own voice: In the past, people used to gather around pianos and let loose with full-throated, off-tune melodies, but nowadays when people raise their voices it is only in anger, and they are often startled by the sound.

This heckler is painfully aware of his own social failings, and Baumgartner plays the role with an endearing, aching openness: He wears every emotion on his sleeve, reciting his daily humiliations with the same sort of careful attention to detail as he does his brief triumphs, which all involve shouting at strangers in public. Corbett even gives his heckler a brief, doomed romance with a hairstylist, though the character pursues his crush in a typically maladroit manner, repeatedly visiting for unneeded haircuts, despite the fact that the object of his affections has butchered his hairstyle. Baumgartner grows woozy in describing the woman, looking as though he may swoon, even as he describes his haircut as a "scalping done by an arthritic drunk."

Given such a perversely charismatic character, director Casey Stangl allows the script to unfold in a rather straightforward manner. She has Baumgartner do little but move about the set, which is designed to look like an unkempt room, while speaking directly to the audience. But Baumgartner, who tackled Conor McPherson's one-man marathon Rum and Vodka some 18 months ago, need do little else. Corbett's script has the qualities of a radio drama, in which the language of the story seizes our imagination, and we witness the astonishing events as they are described to us, encouraged by nothing more elaborate than the sound of a human voice.

Well, that and a bit of fantastically ridiculous spectacle. Hindenburgs are not Hindenburgs unless they explode, and Corbett's heckler does just that in an astonishing climax that has him describing the experience of standing naked but for a novelty stovepipe hat, lunging at police and leading a riot of anarchists against the United Nations. Yet even as Baumgartner's character burns up before us, both the creator and victim of the play's climax, his words rise up in the air. And it is this memory the audience is likely to take away from the theater, rather than the image of a very large man in a very silly hat.


Director Peter Rothstein has a similar obsession with the voice. He has revised Edward Albee's The Death of Bessie Smith to include seven songs from the singer, played in this Theater Latté Da production by Shirley Witherspoon in an opulent red dress. Smith does not appear as a character in Albee's original script--she is left out in a smashed car to die a hideous death while her driver desperately seeks medical help, but is refused by whites-only hospitals in the racist Memphis of 1937. Albee's script focuses on one nurse, a wretched woman with a vicious tongue who whittles away at everyone around her, splashing corrosive words into their faces. It's a markedly bleak script, and like many one-acts feels somewhat incomplete. Albee's nurse calls to mind Martha from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf; the author has a knack for crafting female characters whose profound disappointments in life emerge as reckless, damaging language. But there is no George here who can answer the nurse's bile in kind.

In this production, Carla Noack plays the nurse as a smirking bully, and it's a wonderful performance. Despite her loudmouthed racism and perpetual hostility, she's a damned lively character, smart and funny with a seemingly contradictory love for blues singers. (Then again, this country never seems to lack racists who are fascinated by black culture.) We keep waiting for a voice to emerge that will equal hers, and in Albee's original script none ever does--even the tragic ending simply encourages more cruelty from the nurse. But with the addition of Witherspoon singing as Bessie Smith (craftily staged; the production flits back and forth between a hospital and a smoky performing hall), this production does offer a sort of vocal counterpoint. Smith, dying in an unseen car outside the hospital, might not be able to respond to the nurse, but her gorgeous music, heard throughout, offers its own chastisement. Hers are lusty, sociable, free-spirited verses, and they're infinitely more appealing than the nurse's bitter chorus.