Broken Cookies and Bourgeois Mediocrity

American Premiere Stage Debut Festival: Thymus Vulgaris by Lanford Wilson Corner 28th and Bank by Linda Segal The Lady or the Tiger by Stu Silverstein At the Hasty Pudding Theatre, through November 22

IF GOOD INTENTIONS could be staged it would be "hats-in-the-air, heart-in-the-mouth time" for the American theatre: the American Premiere Stage has managed to hoist its flag and sail out in search of American playwrights to produce--those orphans adrift in our media-swamped culture. I assumed the greatest obstacles confronting the APS would be castrating cuts in federal arts spending, the reluctance of audiences and corporations to take a chance on new and experimental works, and, as anyone who has ever slogged through a heap of unsolicited playscripts can attest, a shortage of talent and inspiration in a country ambivalent at best about the purpose of its theatre. But on the basis of its first program of three short plays--one amusing, mildly potent vaudeville sketch and a couple of icky, sentimental deadbeats--its biggest obstacle is its own bourgeois, Broadway-bound sensibility. The APS has rescued the wrong orphans.

What is this theatre's aesthetic? The first two plays, Thymus Vulgaris by Lanford Wilson and Corner, 28th and Bank by Linda Segal, are about lovable losers--lonely, touchingly inarticulate little people. In the Wilson play, the latest in his line of vulnerable hookers concludes that "There are two kinds of people in this world: the eaters and the eaten." She and her mother--another long-abused lady--have been, ahem, the eaten, and the play ends as they escape from the carnivores to a little house by the sea. In the Segal play the vulnerable, long-abused whore is also a baker, so her version goes, "There are two kinds of cookies: cookie-pressed and free-form." So she escapes down South, leaving her fellow street-vendors to their cookie-pressed lives.

Thymus Vulgaris, named for the thyme that o'ercreeps the mother's trailer (get it?), has an artsy, inexplicable device: every now and then the characters realize that they're in front of an audience, so they get all self-conscious. Whenever the prattle becomes too boring or naturalistic someone will give a little wave, as if to say, "Hey, this isn't T.V. We're in a theatre. And we're just like you." It gives Wilson an easy out: "I'm okay for a person, honey," says the mother--and the "honey" makes her sound just like the lady in the Scott Towels commercials--"but I'm no good for a character." Well, she said it. This really is a meretricious, slapdash little nothing of a play--there are better improvisations in acting classes. But Lanford Wilson is considered a major playwright in some circles (particularly the Circle Rep, whose production this is), and it's easy to imagine APS's artistic director Tom Bloom crouched under Wilson's kitchen table, pouncing ferociously on falling scraps.

The cookie play is about three vendors on the corner of 28th and Bank, and the latest arrival, a punk who dreams of opening a restaurant in an abandoned firehouse, wants to join forces on the project with the middle-aged cookie lady. "What a crust! What a crunch!" he cries, wooing her. The pipe dream is shattered by the pompous detergent vendor, and in a "cathartic" climax the cookie lady smushes pies into his and the punk's face. Throwing food really means something in the bourgeois theatre with all these half-eaten cookie characters.

Apart from the odd "fuck", the only thing that distinguishes the Wilson and Segal plays from those occasionsl "poignant" sketches on T.V. variety shows is their stifling ponderousness. For a lot of people that's what theatre means these days: ponderous television that costs $15 or $20 a person and you have to dress up for it. No wonder nobody goes.


THINGS BRIGHTEN CONSIDERABLY, but not enough to compensate, in the third play, The Lady or the Tiger by cartoonist Shel Silverstein. This is a neat sketch about a murderously overblown T.V. game show that climaxes in the Astrodome with the contestant, dressed as a gladiator, getting either the girl of his dreams and $12 million or a man-eating tiger ("flown in by Air India") and certain death. It's set in the office of the brash young producer, who faces, in turn, a huge black tiger-tamer in safari costume; the awkwardly toupeed M.C. rehearsing the moment when he's supposed to crack the pressure of the event; the "lady"--an actress whom the contestant loved from afar when she lived near him as a boy--who doesn't want to go back to Mississippi with him "and cook okra and have everybody call me a whore;" and, finally, the contestant himself, an elongated, hick-Frankenstein monster scared shitless at the prospect of being torn to shreds. In between the producer virtually masturbates to the commercials, announcements and alarums on his video monitor.

The opening, with the producer playing tiger and thrashing on the floor with his tamer is deliriously silly and crazy, and it's a pity the play is never quite as insane when the audience becomes oriented. Silverstein has written some riotous speeches here, the characters are gems, and now and then a line will be both starkly funny and horrible--as when the producer says to the Lord in mock prayer with the shivering contestant that maybe this poor, white-trash hick has only a 50-per-cent chance of survival and happiness, "but Lord, that 50 per cent chance is the best goddamned chance he's ever gonna get." But despite a superbly dark, sick ending the play is too predictably structured, the target too easy, and, compared with a truly political vaudeville like Dario Fo's Accidental Death of An Anarchist, it doesn't resonate much.

Al Cornona's staging, while not particularly inventive, is smooth and fast, and the performers--Bari K. Willerford, Jack Marshall, Lynn Bowman and Christopher Childs--are terrifically funny. The find of the evening is Barry Nolan, the well-fluffed host of T.V.'s Evening Magazine, as the producer. The role is in the great vaudeville tradition of fast-talking, resourceful, unscrupulous profiteers and Nolan, behind big glasses, uses his deep, oily T.V. voice and ingratiatingly plastic manner with self-effacing cleverness. His line readings are fresh and unpredictable--never milking a joke for a second longer than it deserves--and though he always seems to be dropping his props, he moves with authority. Hard to believe, but Nolan has the intelligence and vocal flexibility to be a major comic actor.

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