Sweet and Low

Not for the sushi set: 'Guys on Ice'
Courtesy of the Plymouth Playhouse

Guys on Ice, the Ice Fishing Musical is neither a sequel to Kevin Kling's The Ice Fishing Play nor a prequel to the as-yet-unwritten Ice Fishing Multi-Disciplinary Performance Poem. It is, I've discovered to some surprise, a thought-provoking piece of theater. Granted, in its ability to provoke thought, Guys on Ice joins rather expansive company--such as all the sensory stimuli in the universe. For instance, en route to Plymouth Playhouse, where the Curt Wollan-directed show is playing, I came to a red light. And I thought: If I don't stop my car, I might kill someone or get a ticket. There you go: mortality, civic responsibility, authority, insurance rates--so many important things to think about, and all in a second or two. But seriously, Fred Alley and James Kaplan's polka-infused musical did get me to thinking quite a bit, mostly about dumb stuff, but eventually about cultural critic Gilbert Seldes.

In 1924, Seldes came out with a book called The 7 Lively Arts, a celebration of comic strips, vaudeville, slapstick, musical comedy, and other non-elitist culture. Seldes's criticism faltered at times (his take on jazz was uninformed and racist, which he later realized), but the book was an important early work in the serious evaluation of American pop culture. It was also a piquant attack on the kind of knee-jerk snobbery that--notwithstanding the global triumph of American pop culture--continues to infect critical thinking, including (sometimes) my own. "We are the inheritors of a tradition," Seldes wrote, "that what is worth while must be dull; and as often as not we invert the maxim and pretend that what is dull is higher in quality, more serious, 'greater art' in short than whatever is light and easy and gay."

Guys on Ice is about two snowsuit-wearing anglers, Marvin (Terry Lynn Carlson) and Lloyd (Fred Wagner), who spend a long winter's day slamming beers, opening their hearts, singing bad songs, and not catching fish in a Wisconsin icehouse. (With respect to the bad songs, it should be noted that the accordion-and-voice numbers played by non-accordionist and occasional third wheel Tim Drake intenionally reach so-bad-it's-good territory.) Yes, it's shallow, but so is some of the stuff that plays at the fancy-pants nonprofit theaters where audience members generally don't eat popcorn, drink beer, talk back to the actors, or show up in camouflage hunting jackets. When the show is working--especially when co-leads Terry Lynn Carlson and Fred Wagner are improvising and generally having a swell time--it has, to follow Seldes, a light, easy, gay quality that isn't easy to come by.

These are not complex characters, but they're given generous, earnest portrayals that make them believable and endearing. Carlson's Marvin is even a wee bit affecting when he pines for the checker at the Pick 'N Save, or laments his eight-bucks-an-hour job at an unspecified plant, doing work that "a fish could do, if a fish had arms and could breathe the air."

I'm still puzzling over why I liked Guys on Ice. It's the performances, in part, but this material is sometimes so lame that even Charlie Chaplin couldn't fully redeem it. I also suspect that the person who enjoys a fart joke by thinking of Gilbert Seldes is either a very self-conscious populist or a prig who won't let a fart joke waft in its proper mise en scène. Maybe I like Guys on Ice because I can't think of a compelling reason not to. Make no mistake: If you think you won't enjoy a shamelessly hokey musical filled with Ole and Lena jokes and highly questionable tunes such as "Ode to a Snowmobile Suit," I'd advise you to trust your gut. But if you're otherwise inclined, or if you're just looking for a play that gives away a can of Leinenkugel (a "one-pack") during intermission, you really could do worse.

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