The Bends

The Big Slam
Eye of the Storm at the Loring Playhouse

IN WOODY ALLEN'S Crimes and Misdemeanors, a smarmy television producer played by Alan Alda defines comedy as follows: If it bends, it's funny. If it breaks, it's not funny. The bigger the bend, it would follow, the darker the comedy. In the satirical tradition of Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt, Bill Corbett's The Big Slam ably spoofs the culture of infomercial self-help and business hucksterism. But it never achieves the bend the subject deserves.

Charismatic Russell and spineless Orrin--office temps on the fast track to nowhere--seize on the "Strategy for Power" cassette program, siphoning Orrin's life savings into an "enterprise" to produce an indeterminate (but highly profitable) product. The third cog of this square wheel is Stephanie, Russell's partner, an unemployed high-power lawyer, a victim of both a glass ceiling and her own suspect ethics. Russell and Stephanie run this show, ignoring poor Orrin as they brainstorm (or "slam") for a marketable item, reciting power strategies by chapter and verse, spitting out a dictionary's worth of fatuous neologisms. While Orrin develops an unrequited crush on Stephanie and Russell's habitual philandering flares up, the trio settles on marketing a smiley cartoon scribbled onto a napkin by Gail, a perpetually sunny UPS driver.

Corbett writes the kind of facile, wise-ass dialogue that comes less from real people than from that ubiquitous piece of furniture, the television--or more specifically, its recent generation of twentynothing sitcoms. It's nice to visit with witty, slender network friends a few times a week, but their lack of emotional range (I get more choked up during the commercials) makes this a vapid place to live. It's a place the theater should probably cede to its winningly glib cousin. Try speaking Russell's smart-aleck-ese on our side of the TV screen and expect to get smacked a good one.

As Russell, Jeff Tatum confronts an acting paradox--how to make a shallow character appear deeply shallow?--without reaching any new conclusions. Mo Collins's Stephanie is a comically acerbic meanie; an occasional punchline-deadening tentativeness should work itself out. And while all the performances easily pass the chuckle test, Peter Breitmayer's Orrin and his splendid raving monologues are the comic centerpiece here. Breitmayer's doughy, bespectacled face and stiff-lipped self-deprecation favorably recall Niles (David Hyde Pierce) of TV's Frasier.

In the second act, a busted partnership and impulsively shifting affections lead to an entanglement of hidden alliances equalling those of prewar Europe. But somehow, through it all, The Big Slam's culture of greed never penetrates the laughable outer trappings of the phenomena: the Promise Keepers and new age shamans, the confidence builders doubling as confidence-game operators. In some late, lonely, jobless hours, I have spent time in the television company of Mr. Tony Robbins and guests Fran Tarkenton, Martin Sheen, and Casey Kasem, wishing I could jettison enough cynicism and savvy to lighten my pockets and let him rewire my brain for success. I've watched the actual testimonials of the converted, stuffed into polo shirts, repeating the mantra "no money down" with unironic resolve, eyes slightly out of focus, looking toward a future providence only they can see.

But The Big Slam never picks up on that gaze. In depicting Orrin and Russell as cheerfully underemployed PhDs, Corbett seems unaware of what every Republican legislator instinctively knows: that breezy academicians (and other godless communist cultural elites) attract little audience sympathy. Moreover, folks who are ordering tapes by making a 1-900 call greet economic failure not with Orrin and Russell's bemusement, but with anger, fear, and other kinds of real-world responses that keep prisons full and citizen militias well-stocked. Which is a long way of saying that The Big Slam doesn't bend enough; its careless, bantering crew doesn't seem to be playing at life for keeps.

Part of a critic's responsibility, however, is to review the play that is on the stage, and not the one the critic believes should have been. While the sets and costumes are something less than they might be, it would be unfair not to emphasize that The Big Slam, as directed by Casey Stangl, is an intelligent, well-crafted, well-delivered piece, filled with clever exchanges that elicit continuous audience guffaws. But while Corbett has a fine ear for the cadences of the jargon, his happily-ever-after ending dates the play more to the Dale Carnegie era of abundance than to our nation's current skeletal social contract. CP

Eye of the Storm's The Big Slam plays at the Loring Playhouse through November 18 (332-1619).

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