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A CurtainUp LA Review

By David Lohrey

When a distinguished playwright such as Beth Henley takes an artistic dive there are various ways to approach the collapse. The one practiced for years in New York is to celebrate gleefully, while directing traffic to the playwright's plot in Has-Been Cemetery. One is only as good as one's last yuk, or so some critics seem to think. This approach killed Tennessee Williams two decades before his death and for about the same amount of time crippled Edward Albee until his resurrection with Three Tall Women. If we were to employ such tactics (standards?), it would now be time to prepare Miss Henley's grave.

An alternative approach would call for greater understanding on the part of critics. This might usefully begin with an inquiry into possible sources of the author's current malaise.

The author of Crimes of the Heart is, after all, a lover of language. Her first play, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, dazzled audiences with its rich use of Southern idioms and equally eccentric speech patterns. (Miss Henley hails from Mississippi.) Henley, it was once thought, would help reinvigorate the American theatre by reintroducing regional dialect -- last heard in the plays of Williams and O'Neill -- into what seemed an increasingly bloodless stage language.

Signature,Miss Henley's new play at the Actors' Gang Theatre fails for many reasons, but the one that stands out is, ironically, its poverty of language. It's set in Hollywood in the year 2052 and Miss Henley has painstakingly created a verbal equivalent for her futuristic nightmare, which sounds like a cross between Valley-Girl banter and ghetto street babble. Lacking wit and intelligence, this verbal experiment fails because it has no function beyond offering actors a chance to blow verbal kisses to the audiences. All of the characters speak the same lingo, so that even when the neologisms suggest a satiric purpose, they are undermined by the lack of contrast. Without dramatic purpose, this futuristic claptrap simply mirrors the Jetsons-like costumes, thereby creating a verbal affirmation of Henley's presumed thesis, which is that in the future there will be even more boobs than there are today.

Beyond the impoverished language lies a more serious flaw, and that is the fact that the play feeds parasitically off a genre that is more in need of rejuvenation than imitation. Signature, when all is said and done, presents the perfect picture of a futuristic wasteland, all used tires and chain link fence (brought lovingly to life by scenic designer Elvis Restaino), but the author fails to make it her own. The world Henley envisions neither matches the masterpieces it emulates, nor transcends them.

One of the more unsettling aspects of this play is the inconsistency of vision. Morally and esthetically the play features unattractiveness. Not just the set, but everything about it is ugly. The actors are no exception, and neither are the characters. We are somewhere between the land of Mad Max and BladeRunner, tucked away behind a now-collapsed Hollywood sign. It is truly a play in which there is no there there, but the aesthetic hard surface is undermined by the mawkish, self-pitying tone taken up by all of Miss Henley's characters. They literally whine and cry about their plight in life. As they despair over petty slights and reminisce about lost fame, they are unaware that the world around them has been destroyed. Having failed to dramatically create an alternative vision, Henley leaves the audience no choice but to imagine that it is she who believes that a rebellion against celebrity culture can be lead by someone who wants to be famous.

Nothing can save this play from itself. The acting is entirely adequate, but at the same time thoroughly unimpressive. The direction is perfectly acceptable, but difficult to evaluate given the purposelessness of characters' entrances and exits. There is no conflict, and therefore no satire. There is no anger, neither on the part of the author nor on that of any one character. The brutal truth is that nobody involved in this production, least of all the playwright seems to believe in the play's premise. Not one word uttered throughout the evening could make anyone believe that it is 2052 or 1952 or 1852. The only contemporary touch, besides the desolate landscape, is the use of video to illuminate outside events such as the close-up of a visitor standing before a security camera. But surely Miss Henley should have known she was in trouble when she found herself resorting to such a device, which here is just dramatic padding, and would in healthier times be dismissed as a modern version of a medieval dumbshow.

All this creates a universe so shallow that one does not even have the consolation of feeling depressed. The vision is not bleak, but merely sleek. As a result, one is not made to feel sad, but embarrassed. The entire enterprise, magnificent set notwithstanding, is put in service of a play that seems to embody the stupidity it satirizes. And yet, hard put as I am to find a single kind word to say about this piece, it did inspire in me a burst of creativity. In an effort to use one the author's cleverest neologisms, let me propose an alternative title to this play, namelySShopping and Pogo-ing.

Playwright: Beth Henley
Director: Veronica Brady
Cast (in order of appearance): Ed Trotta, Gareth Williams, Elaine Tse, Terrah Bennett Smith, Josh Johnson II, Susan Barnes. On Video: Tim Ransom, Vanessa Kay, Paul Eckstein, Zoe Warner.
Set Design: Elvis Restaino
Costume Design: Rodney Munoz
Lighting Design: Ann Archbold
Sound Design: Bruce Greenspan
Video Director: Eamon Harrington
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission
Actors' Gang Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood (323) 465-0566. From 10/07/2000-10/29/2000

Reviewed by David Lohrey based on performance of 10/14/2000.

©Copyright 2000, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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