Arts » Arts Feature

All Tomorrow's Problems

Manbites Dog pieces together fragments of the '50s; Temple Theatre features good performances of modern clichs

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In some basement not far from where you read this, a cobweb-shrouded black and white television suddenly flickers into life, decades after its last use. Though the picture's really snowy, you can just make out an older man in a white lab coat staring gravely at the camera. After a moment's silence, he says, portentously: "Not all experiments are successful."

Well, it is one of the founding truths of pulp science-fiction, one of the genres that are referenced--but decidedly not sent up--in playwright Jeffrey Jones' found-dialogue play Tomorrowland.

It's unfortunately also something of a capsule review for this Manbites Dog Theater production.

As noted in our preview, Tomorrowland reads like Max Ernst and Brion Gysin cutting up A/V Geeks' source material from the 1950s. Jones willfully mixes up television commercials, news broadcasts and pulp programming from the period into a crazy salad of scenes, dialogue and characters. As a result, Jason, Carol and Divina Wilfred, that template nuclear family from Delray Beach, Fla., repeatedly find themselves uprooted from the heart of gracious domestic living and plunked down, without explanation, in the Wild West, on the surface of an alien planet, or before a House subcommittee.

At times the cues for such shifts are obvious. Jason, a 1950s dad dressed in knit brown vest, necktie, pipe, and two-tone loafers suddenly finds himself wearing chaps and a ten-gallon hat. Elsewhere, the effect is more surreal, as Television Star Shannon Malleson (the character's full title, played with gusto by Natalie Sowell) glides through this disrupted urbane description of Delray Beach: "Elegant shops of men's and women's apparel, jewelry and leather goods tempt you with their window displays. But after dark, the loudspeakers begin to blare over the rice paddies, telling the people not to sell their rice to the government."

Obviously, the comic potential for each of these cultural tesseracts is significant, and at times Manbites Dog artistic director Jeff Storer underlines the deliberately broken pavement of the script. Since David Ring plays Jason-- a dad with all the answers--with aplomb, the look of ambushed bewilderment on his face is priceless when Jordan Smith, as Dr. Sinclair, suddenly asks him if he's been experiencing pain during sex. Later, Vanessa Davis' shrill response to a dad who's just morphed into a western vigilante is similarly rewarding.

But in the main, Manbites Dog artistic director Jeff Storer opts for the seamless and surreal over schism. Though he does so with reason, it's a gambit which only works up to a point.

Ring's cowboy description of an outlaw twists in mid-line into a description of the political renegades hunted by Senator Joseph McCarthy: "You can tell a snake by his shape and a skunk by his stink. ... You cain't tell an outlaw by his face, but he's somebody's next door neighbor. So you watch for him, listen for him--memorize, remember, study every suspicious scrap of talk--because you will recognize him, not by his face, but by the unmistakable odor of his words. The stench is un-American!"

But even with Dan Moses Schreier's original ambient loops of boilerplate musical backgrounds, the scenes devolve from comic to surreal to flat by this intermissionless show's mid-point. It's a pity, particularly given the target playwright Jones had in his sights.

In its fast-forward retrospect, Tomorrowland makes it obvious: By the 1950s, the mass media had helped to carefully construct an American national identity, one based on abundance and commercial capitalism. Seamless segues best show how corporate sponsorship influenced not only the commercials of the time, but the rest of the programming as well: our propaganda, in short.

But while the enjoyment of beauty may have been "everybody's privilege," as mom Carol (Jennifer Terrenoire) puts it, true evil lurked inside our workers' paradise. Potential enemies within took many forms: commie sympathisers, prospective boyfriends--and unclean women.

Public service announcements about the polio epidemic showed that the body, itself, could betray without warning. Deodorant ads and veiled references in public health films similarly implied that eternal vigilance was required with the female form: The "boggy mass" a doctor finds in Carol is a large-writ endorsement of the practice of hysterectomy--though that word, most significantly, goes unspoken on stage.

But that sense of palpable menace always hiding beneath appearances--that's the thing that goes most missing in Storer's thoroughly modern world. After a draggy mid-section, things do pick up toward the end, as the director explores how sublimated personality elements find expression in pulp fantasy.

The football lunkhead is the outlaw; the dad who must assure his daughter that any public information about the hydrogen bomb is not "compatible with national security" is the small town vigilante incestuously attracted to his daughter the schoolmarm. Most significantly, the mom is the barroom hostess--and the witness trying to hold onto her ideals while being grilled by the House Un-American Activities Commission.

Sounds fascinating. On paper. But when all scenarios are given equal (and, at times, inadequate) weight, and then played at equal volume, the resulting theatrical monotone does Jones' script few favors. As we noted, only Manbites Dog would dare to do this play. It's too bad they did not do it better.

At least the stakes are nowhere near as high in I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, the blithe--if largely disposable--collection of cabaret songs and sketches about the problematic openings, middle passages and endgames of heterosexual love now playing at Sanford's Temple Theatre.

While Donna Shannon, Greg Hohn, William Stutts Jr. and Debra Gillingham make a cute quartet, Joe DePiero's book dutifully explores a continuum of dating and mating clichés, a number of whose entertainment value by now has been exhausted. Bad dates replete with--surprise--emotional baggage, aging parents whose biological clocks are ticking faster than their offspring's, new parents who've regressed into baby talk with adults as well as children--on the whole, there's little new to report here.

But just when you're ready to write the whole thing off as the theatrical equivalent of a bad night on Saturday Night Live, something as genuinely tender and wistful as Shannon's solo on "I Will Be Loved Tonight," stops you dead in your tracks. Then there's the brutal frankness of Gillingham's performance in "The Very First Dating Video of Rose Ritz," which gives a middle-aged woman's blow-by-blow account of what she's endured to get to this moment. Both deserve a lot better than the mixed company of the present script and libretto.

In an early sketch, Hohn and Shannon amuse as two executives whose busy schedules force them to skip ahead to the second date and similarly truncate the rest of their relationship. The group's work is strong in scenes where a guy actually calling a girl back is cause for an awards ceremony and the aforementioned aging parents' plea, "Hey There Single Guy/Gal." Gillingham's solo, "Always a Bridesmaid," handles familiar material with wit. Taken together they're almost--but not quite--enough to recommend the trip down to Sanford. Good performers, Jerry Sipp's able direction, and a fundamentally uneven script are less than optimal ingredients for a blind date with I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change. EndBlock

Contact Byron Woods at byron@indyweek.com.

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