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Poverty of Thought

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Shopping and Fucking

Bailiwick Repertory

Every time I have to see a play about "the homeless" or "the underclass" or "the disenfranchised," I cringe in anticipation of 90 minutes of misery. Nine times out of ten, these are the works in which playwrights break the golden rule--Write about what you know--delivering instead absurd yet humorless middle-class fantasies about the poor. Spend five minutes with Jonathan Larson's singing and dancing heroin addicts in Rent and see if you don't cringe.

Rent typifies the "realistic" school of poverty playwriting. To maximize audience draw, you pick the hippest tenement dwellers available (East Village squatters here) and have them lament--briefly--the inequities of a capitalist economic system, but never in terms sharp enough to implicate your patrons in the orchestra seats. Then send the characters off into two hours of melodramatic diversions meant to expose the gritty reality of life on the skids.

The other school is typified by Charles L. Mee's Time to Burn, which ran at Steppenwolf a few years back. Here the playwright forgoes any attempt to present reality--despite the self-conscious trappings of grittiness--and makes homelessness or poverty a metaphor for something else, we're never sure what. This type of play assembles a dream team of marginal urban types--the schizophrenic, the crack addict, the HIV-positive drag queen, the welfare mother--in a fantasy of integration that even Jesse Jackson couldn't top. They band together against evil landlords or unfeeling cops until they learn that love conquers all, or money doesn't buy happiness, or some such kindergarten lesson.

In neither type of play is there any concerted effort to do anything about poverty or to understand the societal forces that allow it to thrive in an era of supposed economic vitality. Mark Ravenhill's Shopping and Fucking falls into the Rent category, while Lisa Cordes's Squat lies within the fantasy school. Only one of them even approaches a finished play--though both reveal how tricky it is to use the poor to advance one's career in the theater.

Shopping and Fucking, like Rent, has an impressive pedigree. It opened in London at the Royal Court in 1996 and has been running there ever since. In those two years it's also been produced in over a dozen other countries. (But don't let that sway you; after all, Rent won the Pulitzer, which shows you just how low the water level has sunk in the toilet of commercial theater.) Aside from the play's nudity and simulated sex, there's little to explain its extraordinary popularity. Like Rent, it's a promising but deeply flawed youthful effort that should have been nurtured and revised rather than sent out on its own, bolstered by buzz and hype.

Unlike Rent, however, Shopping and Fucking maintains a certain dramatic credibility. Ravenhill has neither Mike Leigh's slice-of-life accuracy nor Jim Cartwright's lyrical toughness in Road, but he knows how to make an impact without sacrificing theatrical economy. The play is set in a seedy end of London where three young hipsters--Robbie, Mark, and Lulu--live in relative squalor. None has a purpose in life; they're too busy going to clubs, shooting smack, and having jealous fits. Lulu, a would-be actress, makes a bold move and actually goes out looking for a job. She ends up topless reciting random lines for the unctuous Brian, who promises her a job as a spokesperson on a home-shopping network--after she sells $3,000 worth of drugs for him. Lulu enlists Robbie's help, and when he bungles the deal, the two of them wind up working in phone sex, desperately trying to hustle $3,000 to avoid winding up dead.

In the meantime Mark puts himself through rehab--well, partway through--and emerges as something of a heartless monster. Spurning his former love Robbie, he pledges to sever all romantic ties and replace love with commercial transactions, thereby avoiding any possibility of entering into an emotionally addictive relationship. But he ends up with 14-year-old hustler Gary, a sweet, abused kid who quickly melts Mark's heart despite the teen's repeated assertions that he only wants a man who will dominate and mistreat him.

It's all a bit perverser-than-thou--especially the forced, sadomasochistic ending--but it's not without its charms. Ravenhill has a knack for pitch-black comedy, as when Mark attempts to talk Gary into getting a rim job using pop-psychology jargon. And the playwright manages to avoid self-indulgent posturing; he's less concerned with creating something cool and flashy a la Larson than with following through on his rather intricate moral narrative, pushing his characters to the wall and forcing them to accept their own culpability. Sure, the system may crush the likes of Lulu and Robbie--too good-hearted and needy to be truly ambitious--but Ravenhill makes them fight their way out of the hole they've created through their own ethical lapses. All in all, Shopping and Fucking is a refreshingly unapologetic play.

And it's given a commendable production by Bailiwick Repertory, solidly directed by Jeremy B. Cohen. He may drop the ball pretty often--in fact, every scene runs out of gas, stopping dead just when it should end with a bang--but overall he's struck a fine balance between farce and menace. His real strength lies in coaching his actors, however: all of them give strong performances. Meredith Zinner as Lulu proceeds with such laserlike focus you'd think nothing exists beyond the lip of the stage, and Joseph Foust as Robbie offers his strongest, most pathetic performance yet. Michael Szeles turns the rather underwritten character of Mark into a fascinating mixture of forthright arrogance and sniveling self-doubt, while Jeff Ginsburg as Brian creates a truly horrifying portrait of murderous self-interest. As hustler Gary, relative newcomer Danny Belrose holds his own, especially considering the amount of plaintive yelping Ravenhill puts him through.

But ironically the fine acting highlights the script's deepest flaw: it has no real characters. After two hours, you'd be hard-pressed to say who any of these people are. Rather than think in terms of character, Ravenhill seems to think in terms of theatrical function. For example, he decides that one of the roommates must be trying to kick an addiction, thus heightening the tension and conflict among the three. But Ravenhill simply designates Mark for the job in the first few minutes of the play, when we know nothing about the character except that he seems to enjoy sitting on the couch and chatting with his roommates. We've seen neither addictive behaviors nor their consequences--in fact, we never see addictive behaviors from any of them, except perhaps Robbie, who pops some pills when he's feeling depressed. So Mark's decision and his struggle to stay clean seem arbitrary, calculated to achieve a theatrical end rather than being an organic part of the story. Mark is just "the guy trying to stay clean." In the end it seems that Ravenhill is alarmingly like the unscrupulous Brian, using a character for his own ends rather than understanding his or her dilemma.

Ravenhill approaches all his characters in like fashion, putting these icons of deviance on display for our collective astonishment. His gaze is stern and moralizing--rarely do we get a chance to empathize with these characters because Ravenhill rarely gets deep inside their heads or hearts. Even with this cast's fully committed performances, the play seems cold, as Ravenhill shores up the distinctions between normal and aberrant and banishes his characters to the latter realm. It's always easier to point fingers than it is to understand, and judging from the play's success, pointing fingers is more commercially viable too.

Squat

Trap Door Theatre

A band of squatters struggles to create a sense of family. A videographer documents the attempt. People break into song. A drag queen dies. Yes, it's "Rent Redux," also known as Squat, playing at Trap Door. But despite superficial similarities to the musical, Squat borrows its structure and approach from Time to Burn. Six homeless poster children--black, white, Asian, Latino, young, old, gay, straight--have lived for years in a basement, where they hang out in semiheroic tedium. One day Clay shows up with his video camera, having read something about their "struggle" with police in the newspaper--though no evidence of that struggle surfaces at any point during the show.

These people may know how to tough it out under harsh conditions, but Clay's arrival sends them scurrying like cockroaches: they end up huddled against various walls. Yet within two minutes they're eager to appear on camera, never bothering to ask what he plans to do with the tape. And about that long electrical cable running across the stage from the back of the camera: where exactly in a squatters' apartment would Clay plug the thing in?

These are just a few of Squat's many implausibilities. The homeless characters generally lack any semblance of logical thinking and impulse control, resembling ten-year-olds. Clay never adequately explains his desire to become a squatter except to mumble that in this situation he's "no longer pretending." The play proceeds through a series of confessional monologues until the drag queen dies--and in this play, dying of AIDS is identical to dying of a gunshot wound in an old western.

With precious little substance to explore, director Michael S. Pieper ends up merely pushing his actors to cartoonish extremes--for two long hours. Trap Door is too intelligent and sophisticated a company to bother with a work like this. Let's hope it's a momentary lapse.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Shopping and Fucking photo by Paul Sherman.

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