Some Mo' Productions
at Stage Left Theatre
Element Theatre Company
at Organic Theater Company Greenhouse
What a hoot! You know what happens when you smoke marijuana, don't you? Or--as they call it in Sean Abley's hilarious stage adaptation of Reefer Madness, the silly antimarijuana film of the 1950s--Mary Jane, pot, cigs, etc. In Some Mo' Productions' rendition, potheads become hit-and-run drivers, prostitutes, murderers, lunatics, and effeminate piano players.
Played as straight as the original film but with an entirely different intention, this onstage Reefer Madness provokes laughter by sticking to its premise without winking once. Abley well understands that he doesn't have to go out of his way to make this material ridiculous; the hysteria speaks for itself. Like the film, Abley's script shamelessly underscores all the 1950s myths about pot: that dealers recruit innocent teenagers, that addiction is immediate and total, that it leads to ruin, and that everyone gets his or her very own "hot stick," as these addicts call joints.
Introduced by Abley himself, playing a virulently antidrug school principal named Dr. Carroll, Reefer Madness purports to tell the tale of the average teenagers in an average American town who succumb to this scourge. Nervous, barely under control, Carroll explains that the spread of marijuana use is as dangerous to our country "as the spread of communism."
Two tough characters named Jack (a gangsterish Geoff Isaac) and Mae (Cassy Harlo, who gives her character just a tad of conscience) run a speakeasy where pot, booze, and manic piano playing are readily available. Blanche (Brooke Alley), Jay (Shon Little), and Ralph (Dave Gaudet) are among the already-converted who party, smoke, and laugh like banshees. They're all in suits and cocktail dresses and are remarkably well behaved and courteous, even when pianist Hot Fingers McCrawlskey (Abley again) ups the tempo.
Slowly but surely, one by one, the town's good kids enter this den of evil. First Gwen, who has dreams of being a dancer. Then Jimmy and Billy, pressured by their peers. Jack and Mae keep the party going with more hot sticks (delivered in cigarette boxes), more booze, and more music.
But finally tragedy strikes. Going to get more marijuana with Jack in his sister Mary's car, Jimmy runs over a pedestrian. When the police start sniffing around, Mary figures out the role Jimmy's played and goes looking for him. Of course she winds up at Jack and Mae's, where Billy, her boyfriend, is being seduced by Blanche. One thing leads to another and Mary winds up with a bullet in her brain. Billy's framed, and Ralph loses his mind.
The story's absurd moralism is funny in and of itself, but the humor's made more biting by the emphasis director Jeff Rogers gives the little things. When Mae innocently offers the party goers a snack, the ravenous potheads practically drool. When Dr. Carroll, wielding a huge candy bar like a nightstick, interrogates Billy, the young man is absolutely mesmerized by the chocolate bobbing suggestively in front of his face.
The cast is wonderful, especially Gaudet (whose drug-crazed laugh is a highlight) and Alley (Blanche's suicide is not to be missed). But the play wraps up so quickly that things don't get tied together quite as neatly as in the film. Jimmy, who causes so much of the trouble, suffers not one iota. He doesn't seem to miss his dead sister much, or to feel in the least bit responsible for her death. But ultimately, who cares? The whole idea is to make people laugh, and Reefer Madness accomplishes that feat well enough.
One word of caution: throughout the show the cast puffs away at, well, presumed imitation marijuana cigarettes. By the finale, you will reek of the stuff--whatever it is.
A couple of one-act plays by Robert Auletta currently make up Element Theatre's late-night offering, "Bombshell." The show is still being revised, however, with substantial changes expected before it moves to prime time in early April.
One change I'd suggest is to scratch Nuclear Ear, the opener, a monologue by a deranged homeless man delivered by Peter Defaria. "I'm the cockroach man," he sings. Suffering a bit of a Cassandra complex, he warns about nuclear war and the inevitable destruction of the human race.
Although Defaria is energetic and often even amusing, he's at the mercy of Auletta's simplistic script: ultimately it's a rant, a tantrum. He doesn't have a whole hell of a lot to say, nor does he say it with any kind of fresh voice or twist.
Hey, Hey LBJ is in considerably rougher shape than Nuclear Ear but it's far more promising. I suspect that eventually Auletta will have to temper his ambitions in this piece, but the risks he takes in bringing in his multiple concerns--and all in a genuinely smart, angry, and provocative way--are admirable. He's served by a superb cast: Richard Cotovsky as Gear and Gail Richman as Latinzia are both riveting. Also of note is the music, a powerful electric mix composed by Joe Cerqua and Marty Higginbotham.
Set in a government agency even more secretive and manipulative than the CIA, the surreal story draws on memories and ideals from the 1960s to the 1980s. It compares Vietnam and the Latin American military excursions of the Reagan era. Because Hey, Hey LBJ doesn't acknowledge its specific time period, however, and because it deals mostly in broad strokes, it risks giving a misleading impression about current U.S. involvement in Latin America.
Indeed, most of the conflicts alluded to in the play are no longer going on: a peace treaty was just signed in El Salvador; the election of Violeta Chamorro stole the State Department's thunder against Nicaragua's Sandinistas; and from Argentina to Chile, Latin America seems to be experiencing an uncharacteristic streak of democratic elections in recent years. Because of these things, our role south of the border, whatever it might be, is certainly more covert than ever--which makes the comparison with Vietnam romantic, facile, and probably fallacious.
Also on the edge of romantic, fallacious facility is the character of Latinzia. "She's young, Latin, and dangerous," Gear confides to the audience at one point. "That excites me somehow." The character plays right into stereotypes of Latinas as exotic and fiery yet pliable; that Auletta casts Latinzia as a rifle-wielding revolutionary in one scene doesn't break the stereotype, it feeds it. If not for Richman's considerable skill, Latinzia would be the classic Latin virgin-whore.
Still, the concepts that Auletta works into Hey, Hey LBJ--war, the misuse of power, the manipulation of the masses, political complicity, and American conceit--are all compelling. His methods, aided and abetted by Wendy Rohm's direction, are usually sensational, a little manipulative in and of themselves, and very passionate. It's the passion that drives--and saves--this work.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Todd Minske.