American Apathy takes satiric aim

Vacuous, ignorant, and proud of it: Nate Hessburg, Marcia Svaleson, Ryan Grimes, and Melissa Bechthold (left to right)
Aaron Christopher

Urban Samurai Productions
at the Playwrights' Center, through April 27

Pick just about any moment in human history and you'll find plenty to send up. The jaundiced satirist in today's America, though, has an embarrassment of riches from which to choose, what with the tanking economy, our war of choice, and our ongoing national nervous breakdown involving over-consumption, hubristic denial, and a decadent abandonment of anything that might ground us in well-being.

Hey, don't take it from me. Playwright Aaron Christopher has taken dead aim with American Apathy, and this Urban Samurai production shoots the satiric arrows he provides and comes alarmingly close to a conceptual bull's-eye. At the heart of great satire is a pissed-off sense of offended morality, after all, and this show doles out wrath to spare.

All the action takes place in a commodious living room owned by Judy (Melissa Bechthold) and Ron (Nate Hessburg), a couple living in a $1.5-million home and huffing the fumes of pre-crash, credit-fueled prosperity. In the first scene, Judy and Ron smile plastic grins and tell each other how lucky they are. When an edge of desperation and boredom creeps into their dialogue, Ron sends Judy into waves of bliss with the notion of phone-ordering an expensive new juicer.

Soon Judy comes home from a shopping spasm with her slinky pal Elaine (Marcia Svaleson). After Elaine mercilessly hits on a delivery guy (Tim Reddy), much to Judy's shock, Elaine sits Judy down and asks her to cook up a fantasy of infidelity. Judy is a lost innocent until she finally tries to placate her friend. What she comes up with is a desiccated parody of lustful fancy, a plastic version of the erotic that signals the hollowed-out heart that Christopher will stab and jab at for the rest of the night.

Director Matthew Greseth keeps up a jaunty pace in a work that turns increasingly cruel (albeit consistently funny, thanks to Christopher's insistent one-liners, many of which are mind-bombs that take a few seconds to explode). When Ron finally gets the house to himself, he kicks up his home theater system just to experience the eargasm of the THX rush over the speakers. And when Judy experiences one of her intermittent crises, confessing, "I just want to be interesting," Ron is irritated and flummoxed until he realizes that he can solve this pesky problem by opening his checkbook.

Elaine shows up later with hubby David (Ryan Grimes) in tow; David sports a nauseating fauxhawk and an unctuous smirk, and the couple condescend to Judy and Ron (apparently for still possessing a shred of humanity) when they're not shooting clipped verbal fusillades in the other's direction. Elaine and David are meant to be unbearable, clearly, and Svaleson and Grimes provide an over-the-top combination of vacuity, rapacious materialism, and shameless ignorance.

The bottom falls out for Ron and Judy before intermission, and the pair ends up baring the soul of their rotten marriage to a nonplussed debt counselor (Reddy again). Ron is on slow burn here, about to blow at any time, while Judy is angry and icy (when told that most people get by spending tons less than her, Judy intones, "A lot of people don't have taste."). Before the scene is over, Ron and Judy are on the floor, fighting over a credit card like two buzzards dueling over the last morsel of carcass.

There's a tension throughout as to whether to play Ron and Judy realistically or as venal caricatures, and while the balance slips at times, mostly these actors get it right. The brief second act centers on a ghastly betrayal and real grief; it's a bold stretch, as jarring as the dark, witty stuff that came before. By the time the lights dim, there's ample shock and pathos—as well as a sense that this small theater gem has driven home its point with a rare combination of dexterity and force. The bill is due, in other words, and it ain't pretty.

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