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A CurtainUp Review
Shoppers Carried By Escalators Into the Flames

by Les Gutman
Did our heavenly father just spit on California and turn on his heel?

Betty Miller and Will Patton
B. Miller and W. Patton
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Imagine, if you will, a restoration comedy set in a trailer park. An elderly grandmother ponders the state of the world whilst spouting incongruent if perhaps sage moral advice; a withdrawn father mopes about and occasionally waxes poetic and philosophic; and the grown children, in varying states of disrepair and sobriety, transit through the manse. A wedding, held in the house very late at night, spices things up, especially because the bride and groom are ex-lovers of two of the siblings. For good measure, an enigmatic and exotic woman, with whom one of the sons is in a relationship, materializes, and a little yapping dog, heard but not seen, seems to annoy everyone.

Shoppers, as I will call the show for brevity's sake, is of course not a restoration comedy, but rather a dark, edgy, off-kilter and surreally contemporary one. The playwright (the writer, poet and ex-substance abuser Denis Johnson, late of Jesus' Son fame), owes more of a debt to Sam Shepard than Sheridan and Congreve. And the house in which the play is set is, for the record, not a trailer although it is no more than one step above.

The surname of the occupants of this house is Cassandra, the significance of which is probably obvious but surely will become so. Its central fixture is a television set (of the interactive variety, and with downtown theater gem James Urbaniak as its voice); its prevailing aesthetic might be called spiritual white-trashiness. It's not a pretty picture, and some will consider it one they have no interest in witnessing. Shoppers presents us with a group of exceedingly addle-brained folk, the sort of whom jokes about in-breeding are made, but in Mr. Johnson's amalgam, that's fodder for a lot of laughs, peeking out from behind which there are hints of incipient insight: Grandma (Betty Miller) may be out in left field preaching religion in a house that is blasphemous by its very nature, Dad (Will Patton) may be zoned out (he is depressed, a condition brought on, we are led to believe, by his first wife having run over their baby's head with the car, and spends his days watching a lot of television which, he says, inspires him), and the local pastor (Urbaniak) is no doubt in too much shock to deal with his flock, but the addict son Cass (Michael Shannon) has been going to AA and is on his way to rehab (he will prepare for it with one last fling with a bottle of tequila) and realizes its time for a family talk. "The rot is not in the things, " he tells everyone, looking around, "it's in us."

Mr. Johnson's motif may be something of an acquired taste, as will be the way director David Levine has most of them speak, but there are truths in what he has to say, and they are worth indulging. This is a world in which reality exists mostly by way of television (Grandma seems much more perplexed by a series of shopping center fires --hence the show's title -- than any crises at closer range. For the latter, her antidote seems to be a bag of microwave popcorn. Nothing registers as important in this life principally because everything is deemed transient. This is a family in which wedding rings are suspect because the diamonds may be fake, "relationships are of the erasable kind" and Grandma can take perverse pride in the absence of tattoos in the family. Why? Because nothing is permanent.

The poet in Johnson occasionally gets the better of him, as he has characters recite grand philosophical summings up; the play is better when he lets their droll spontaneity speak for itself, flexing what the father calls, in describing an absent son, "the natural freedom of an idiot". The sugar which aids one in swallowing his medicine (he does not force on us a resolution that will comfort us) is its warped humor, and the splendid execution by the cast.

Will Patton comes to the role of the father by way of an appearance in Johnson's Jesus' Son and early work with Sam Shepard. His undercooked portrayal of the father is particularly revelatory as he manages to find depth in such lines as "well, the dog lived through another day". We remember Michael Shannon from another trailer park tour-de-force, Killer Joe; his raw and unapologetic rendition of Cass here mines much of the same terrain and delivers it with exceptional verisimilitude. Betty Miller rounds out the central cast, perfectly calibrating the balance between absent-minded goofiness and religion-tinged consternation. To James Urbaniak's pastor (a deliciously drawn role to which he seems oddly born, she conveys: "Tell him this family deserves a miracle."

Restoration comedy was a high risk enterprise in its day, revealing to audiences society's dirty little secrets behind a veneer of respectability. In Shoppers, the only veneer is on the cheesy paneling that adorns the walls.
Shoppers Carried By Escalators Into the Flames
by Denis Johnson
Directed by David Levine

with Gretchen Cleevely, Kevin Corrigan, Emily McDonnell, Betty Miller, Will Patton, Michael Shannon, Adam Trese, James Urbaniak and Kaili Vernoff
Set design: Marsha Ginsberg
Costume Design: Mimi O'Donnell
Lighting Design: Sarah Sidman
Sound Design: Robert Kaplowitz
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes with one intermission
Dimson Theatre, 108 East 15th Street (Union Sq/Irving Pl)
Telephone (212) 239-6200
Opening June 30, 2002, limited open run
TUES - SAT @8, WED, SAT @3, SUN @7; $45-49.50
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 6/28/02 performance
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