THE DIRTY PICTURE MAN
Hanging Bog Theatre Company at Cafe Voltaire
Young playwrights are learning the wrong lesson from network television, as situation comedies, in ongoing embarrassing attempts to justify their inexplicable existence, try to deal with issues from child abuse to racism to gay rights (next we'll be asking the Super Morphin Power Rangers for their views on NAFTA). Whatever the controversial social topic of the day, it typically surfaces right before the first commercial break, a moment of shock and disbelief--What's this pistol-grip 12-gauge doing in the twins' playroom?--that allows for a dramatic fade to black sans laugh track. The issues just don't seem natural--like olives in Jello-O.
In his one-act The Dirty Picture Man Mark Medoff has fallen victim to the "make your play socially relevant" syndrome, though his writing shows more promise than nearly anything seen on prime time. He creates the intriguingly banal character Stephen Ryder, a nearly featureless, achingly well intentioned schlepp who holds forth on such topics as the intricacies of sweeping a floor. He works as a janitor in a decrepit movie theater, where Bad Splice Cornelius (the projectionist), Tactless Rita (the concessions worker), and the rest of the staff hardly lift a finger. As a member of the Church of the Causative Yeast ("Everything must rise up!") he believes in doing whatever he does to the best of his ability, making him a true oddity in this world. As his boss exclaims in disbelief, "You're really cleaning!"
In the first half of The Dirty Picture Man Medoff lets Rider tell his story, recounted with an endearing lack of guile by Douglas Blakeslee. In so doing Medoff creates a subtle critique of the American service economy, full of unmotivated flunkies sleeping through myriad mind-numbing jobs. Rider, so devoted to his menial work, is as much an oddity in the real world as in his own, a fact that's at once alarming and sad. The very nature of his character invites the audience to consider the larger economic and social world he inhabits.
But halfway through the play Rider takes over the management of a porno theater--which of course he does to the best of his ability--and almost immediately begins to question the pathology that leads men to enjoy witnessing women's humiliation. The question is well worth exploring, but here it seems to arise out of nowhere. Rider's language suddenly becomes studied. The man who earlier called porno films "naked lady bosom movies" now laments, "Something in us feels the need to degrade women. . . . Do men need help?" The shift drains Rider of personality and turns him into something of a mouthpiece for the playwright. If Medoff could find a way to let the first half of his play, so rich with possibilities, evolve toward a natural conclusion rather than forcing it into a socially relevant corner, he'd have a strong play on his hands.
ACT LIKE A LADY
at Cafe Voltaire
Rena Malin, author of the hour-long collection of comic sketches Act Like a Lady, admirably avoids falling prey to televisionitis. Despite some heavy-handed rhetoric in the press release--the piece is subtitled Scenes and Monologues From the Mind of a Rebellious Communist Feminist, But Ever-So-Ladylike, Suburban Girl--Malin maintains a light, sophisticated touch in examining a variety of social taboos, including infidelity, homophobia, and misogyny.
Like most revues, a good quarter of the material could be cut. The scene between Malin and a sexist party guest, for example, reads too much like an instruction manual on How To Be a Strong Woman to have much punch onstage. Malin's writing is stronger when it revels in social abnormality: an eight-year-old girl reciting in rhyming couplets her story of watching a naked man masturbate on the beach, a distracted mother telling her young son the story of Goldilocks humping Papa Bear, a couple on their first date delighting in each other's sordid pasts, which include alcoholism, prostitution, and bulimia.
While Malin's writing is generally strong, her performance is curiously strained. Her coperformers Joanne Cloonan and Jay Paner approach the material with a casual, deadpan air, but Malin is a bit of a wound spring, too often forcing the humor rather than playing her scene. Her discomfort may have been due in part to opening-night jitters. But perhaps she's simply too close to her material. She tends to perform like a writer rather than an actor, often giving more attention to the words than to creating the subtle emotional reality behind those words. As a result the evening feels rushed, and much of Malin's rich material blurs by.