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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
This review is a case of the reader wagging the critic. I hadn't put it in my schedule, feeling one play at American Place was enough for my over-booked calendar. So I picked Robbers not knowing it would have one of those historic super-short runs (just nine performances). Then I kept getting e-mails urging me to take another trip to the American Place to catch the show in the smaller space. Sooo...when the show was extended, I decided better late...etc. I'm glad I did.
Jonathan Reynolds' Stonewall Jackson's House is indeed worth seeing. Sure it's a soap box. If there are any social topics under which it doen't light a fire, they wouldn't take up more than a few fingers of one hand. Everybody and everything is given a turn at the tip of Reynolds' rapier sharp pen. His five mouthpieces-- ten, actually, since this is a play within a play, with five actors playing all the parts-- give voice to so many outrageous prejudices and hypocritical do-good-isms that Reynolds' oversized soap box often seems in danger of collapsing. The reason it doesn't is that it's thoroughly amusing, original and theatrical.
The kindling that ignites the no-holds-barred proceedings is a hystoric sitcom--(hystoric, in portmanteau coinage= hysterically funny history)-- played out against a fiendishly efficient and clever set of panels that flip from the exterior to the interior of the mansion. A young African-American named LaWanda (Lisa Louise Langford), is dressed in a Black Mammy costume. She is a docent conducting four ditzy-dopey American sightseers through the mansion of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson. The Poor White Trash half of this foursome, (R. E. Rodgers and Katherine Lask), explodes at LaWanda when they learn their trip in search of "authentic" Americana pictures has been in vain since everything in the mansion is Ersatz, if not downright modern. The other couple, (Ron Faber and Mimi Bensinger), is less bothered by this lack of authenticity since they themselves, at least as they describe themselves, are living breathing examples of the American Dream fulfilled through a prosperous farm tended by happy workers who sound suspiciously like every cliche about childishly carefree workers. And so LaWanda who hates her job and, thanks to the contentious Rednecks now has a headache as well as a toothache, asks the Heartland couple to take her back with them as their looked-after, carefree slave. This is followed by a fast-paced Civil War parody of La Wanda's yearning and then. . .
Surprise, surprise. . .
The play veers completely from the Old and New South and reveals that what we've just seen has been a small repertoire company's tryouts for a playwriting competition. La Wanda is now Tracy the company dramaturg, the happy Ohio farm/plantation owners are in charge of the company, and the White Trash couple has metamorphosed into an actor and a visiting English director. The authorship of the play about the tour guide who yearns for the "easy" life of the welfare state à la slavery play ignites a fire storm that makes the by now famous/infamous Town Hall debate between August Wilson and Robert Brustein seem like a fireside chat but a lot more incisively and, to repeat, entertainingly. The barbs at the theater community are amongst the sharpest, as when Tracy lambasts gender blind casting with "nobody believes men playing women except in Las Vegas." But everyone gets their turn to blast some group or other and expose the shakiness of their own good will.
As the cast's splendid performances saved the Stonewall Jackson play from its sitcom elements, so it saves the play wrapped within it from become more debate than comic drama. Their transition from one set of roles to the next is a pleasure to watch. And, while I don't want to give away the finale, there's yet another transition to tie up all the cynical knots.
Polemical as it is, and whether you agree with the points made or not this is solid satire which belies George S. Kaufman's famous quote that "satire is what closes on Saturday." In fact the tiny American Place basement theater could fill twice it's 72 seats and the show has been extended past quite a few Saturdays (to 4/28) to accommodate the ticket demand.
In closing, a word of advice. Go with a friend or a group of friends so that you can go for coffee and post-mortems.