NOTHING IS guaranteed to make an audience feel more awkward than a joke which doesn't work. The captive spectator, forced to watch a fellow human being struggling for laughs where few are to be had, is constantly beset by nagging questions and self-doubt. Why am I here? How can it be that I have paid to see this? How far away is the exit?
El Grande De Coca-Cola, which opened last week at the Charles Cabaret Theater, is one long series of failed jokes. You sit and wait and wait for a funny one--with so many shots fired, surely one must hit the target, but somehow they don't. The tension builds. You begin to laugh at near jokes, ones that fall just short of the mark, worried perhaps that the others have gone over your head. And when, after an hour and five minutes, the curtain comes down for the last time you walk out relieved, as though the main task sat not on the actors' shoulders, but yours.
The plot, if it can be called that, is harmless enough. One Don Pepe Hernandez, a would-be impresario in the tiny Honduran coastal town of Trujillo, has rented a decrepit nightclub with money from his uncle, the owner of the local Coca-Cola bottling plant. His show, which he calls La Parada de Estrellas, or Parade of Stars, is advertised as featuring "international cabaret stars," who turn out to be four members of his family wearing various transparent disguises. The play consists of one full run-through of Hernandez's show.
El GRANDE DE Coca-Cola's attempts at humor draw on the ignorance of the Hondurans and the amateurish awkwardness of their performances. It is a series of malapropisms, mispronunciations, and slapstick--little of which is much above the level of a skit at an expensive summer camp. One of the biggest laughs comes when the emcee says "Mahsahss'-ah-shits" for Massachusetts. Unfortunately he repeats it another two times. The slapstick is on the same level. A blind blues singer walks into a wall. A drummer bangs his head on a cymbal while taking a bow. A favorite laugh-getter is a kick in the balls during one of the many brawl scenes.
The actors can't be blamed for any of the show's weaknesses. Their performances are uniformly good despite the limited material the script affords them. Steve Sweet, as the depressive drummer, and James Howard Lawrence, as his manic, piano-playing opposite, are particularly fine.
But who is to blame for this pathetic stageblight? The accusing finger has to be pointed at the three producers, who brought the show here after a commercial success Off-Broadway in New York, and the five authors, who wasted good paper and ink writing it. There is no need to list their names. Hopefully they will continue to bask in the obscurity they now enjoy.