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Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Gurney is mad as hell about the state of our nation, but he's old enough to be entrenched in his genial playwriting style and smart enough to realize that tragedy is not his forte. O Jerusalem, Mrs. Farnsworth, Screen Play brought up infuriating and frustrating issues galore but, with an assist from Jim Simpson's zestful direction and savvy performances, all remained within the framework of entertaining theater. Post Mortem, again directed by Simpson, is the latest additon to Gurney's political oeuvre.
Each of these plays takes potshots at the misbehavior and corruption that have made our civilization less civil, but does so with a college drama club's sense of jovial mischief. It's as if Mr. Gurney has gone back to school to put himself in the mood to give these plays the benefit of mature wisdom and insights plus a generous dose of fondly remembered collegial hi jinx.
Post Mortem is built around a conceit that's almost as clever as last year's Screen Play. That play, performed by the Flea's apprentices or Bats, turned Gurney's native Buffalo into a way station for freedom loving refugees, shades of the classic and much spoofed film Casablanca. Post Mortem again plays out in a near future in which life in America has gone from troublesome to horrible. But while Gurney manages to introduce a lot of laughs and spin his Orwellian setup towards a more hopeful direction, he has not managed to keep the comic elements on a consistently high level throughout. As he makes his points about what went wrong and ruminates on why even a society that gets back on a sane and sensible footing is likely to derail again, he tends to speechify rather than edify.
The eighty-five minute three-hander is set at a Christian right controlled Midwestern State University where we find Alice (Tina Benko), an attractive but conservatively dressed and coiffed woman mouthing the words of a book she's reading. It's almost as if she were an illiterate just learning to read. We don't wonder too long about what's going on, as she quickly tosses the book aside and begins to act out what turns out to be Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. Enter her Stanley— a senior named Dexter (Christopher Kromer) who used to be in her drama class. Dexter has a major crush on Alice and wants to persuade her to work with him on his senior thesis. Since he has not been a particularly impressive student, Alice is understandably reluctant, especially when his proposed thesis involves a manuscript by a playwright of considerably less stature than Tennessee Williams, one A. R. Gurney.
And so, as Alice resists and Dexter insists, we get a sense of the university as a stand-in for a whole country where right wing, born again zealots and a venal government have eroded personal freedom and allowed creative institutions like theaters to be co-opted by bottom-line oriented enterprises. It also turns out that the script Dexter disovered —titled, you guessed it, Post Mortem — is truly a major work by this minor playwright. That's major as in major enough so that publishing it as a book could change not just Alice and Dexter's lives but put the country back on the right rather than the righteous track.
Dexter's theory about the details pertaining to how the original Post Mortem's ended up in a trunk instead of on stage adds an amusing mystery angle. To heighten the intrigue, the rediscovered manuscript's promise of life is short lived.
I'll leave it to you to find out for yourself whether a Hedda Gabler-like plot twist hatched by Alice can save the day — and if so, whether the theater can really be the weapon of mass reconstruction to cure an ailiing civilization. It goes without saying that Mr. Gurney uses this situation to skewer the people responsible for the current sorry state of the union, with Dick Cheney the Úbermensh of all wrongdoers; but neither should you be surprised to see that he's not above poking a satiric finger at the good guys like Alice and Dexter.
The conceit of using himself as the plot trigger is fun and works best when the humor pertains to the theatrical references. One of my favorite bits was Alice's description of a time when " playwrights could write whatever they wanted, but there were these critics who cricized them" She agrees with Dexter that this might be "cool" but disheartening if the critics didn't like you "especially since one critic from one newspaper pretty much determined your fate." (to add an added bit of relevancy, the critic she has in mind happened to sit in back of me at the performance I attended).
All this good stuff does not keep the play from losing some of its steam as the plot thickens. This is the fault of the script not the actors. Tina Benko sizzles with pentup creative and sexual energy and her scenery chewing in the second half of the play is exactly what the part calls for. Christopher Kromer is charmingly boyish as the mediocre student who's smart enough to know what he wants. The third member of the cast, Shanon Burkett, doesn't come on scene until we get to what amounts to act two of this one-acter. She brings enough ditsy charm to the role of Betsy, the chairperson and host of a Student Lecture Committee event, to almost get the laugh meter jumping to its top level again. But the meter plummets and never quite recovers from her interminably long jokey speech about cell phones.
Mr. Gurney has a large following and no doubt Post Mortem will be a sellout throughout its run. Unlike his fictional Post Mortem, the Flea production does not pretend to be an instrument for change. Instead it offers a chance for a group of like-minded citizens to laugh some of the country's troubles away, at least for a little while. Don't look for Dick Cheney in this audience.
Links to A. R. Gurney's previous Flea productions reviewed at CurtainUp.
O Jerusalem (2003)
Mrs. Farnsworth (2004)
Screen Play (2005)
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide