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A Bird Out of Water

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A BIRD OUT OF WATER

Society for New Things

At first I felt sorry for the actors in Tom Rossen's A Bird Out of Water--stuck in this play for two hours, having to say things like "Damn it Joe! Don't talk about my sister that way!" and "There's so much suffering out there I can't think!" It made my mind reel with memories of the bad plays I'd been in back in college.

The Society for New Things is a real gung-ho group, nice as pie and just-so-happy-to-be-here. The problem is they're so damn enthusiastic about puttin' on a play, they don't think. They just can't say no to an idea. I blame the actors and director Pauline Tanagi at least partially because somebody should have noticed somewhere along the line that A Bird Out of Water tries to do too much and ends up doing absolutely nothing. If a moment doesn't work--and very few in this play did--the director and actors have a right, maybe even a duty, to do something about it. Especially when they're working closely with the writer.

But maybe, in their hearts, everybody involved knew something was wrong, something that just couldn't be fixed. It showed in the way the actors stood awkwardly onstage wondering what to do while another character talked. It was even more evident when they spoke, forcing emotions out of a script that asks for high drama but does nothing to support it.

The setting is a gourmet restaurant trying to make a go of it in a one-factory Rust Belt town. The factory has been bought out by a big conglomerate that's trying to bust the union, close the factory down, or both. The restaurant, of course, is a symbol of hope amid the decay. While the food's supposed to be excellent, nobody wants to eat there, and we're not sure why.

Cookie, the owner and "chef extraordinaire" (T.J. Zale), has a brother, Roy (Rich Hutchman), who's lost his job on a punch press and has basically gone over to the other side to work as a security guard. At the beginning of the play Cookie and Roy are not speaking because Roy won't support his brother's restaurant dream. He just can't. Won't even let his kids work there during the summer--he's scared of failure or something. Then there's Jean Benton (Janice Blake), the hardworking dishwasher who's pissed at the world and won't tell Cookie why. Later we find out she "fell off a horse and wouldn't get back on." She's running away from a mysterious past for an even more mysterious reason.

If Rossen had just focused on these three characters--or any three--he might have been able to develop a plausible story. But he keeps layering plot on top of plot as if quantity could somehow make up for quality. Theater groups like Oobleck and the Curious Theatre Branch can create a believable reality out of a totally absurd situation because the action remains true to its own internal logic. In A Bird Out of Water Rossen takes a very plausible situation, a factory closing, and renders it unbelievable through lazy logic and self-indulgent writing.

Some editing would have been appreciated. In the rest of the story a waitress, Miranda (Natalie Mills), falls in love at first sight with a customer, Buck Sheffield (Dan Halstead). Buck has a sister, Robin (Cynthia Rhoads), who's upstairs coaxing a bird out of the room where the union meeting is supposed to be held. I think Robin was once Miranda's teacher, and Miranda always wanted to be a bookkeeper, but now she's a waitress because that's the way things go in this Rust Belt town.

In the meantime it's Buck's birthday, and he's having a little party with his sister Robin (Margo Seltzer), his friend Colin (Frank Kentra), and Colin's girlfriend BB (Kerri Randles). BB just so happens to be Jean's long-lost sister (Jean's the one who fell off the horse). Jean had been wondering for years what happened to her sister, then one day BB just walks into a restaurant in their home town. Fancy that. Then there's Joe Levett (Gian-Lorenzo Forliano), the bad cop who's Roy's boss. He's a nasty, dirty-minded guy who insults women and doesn't care about the union. Somehow, all these people converge at the restaurant on the evening of Buck's birthday.

I know, it seems like a lot. And I haven't even mentioned the angels. They speak in Elizabethan verse and emerge from the jukebox when a new-age crystal Buck is given for his birthday is accidentally thrown on the floor. It turns out that the angels have been messing with everybody's reality (I think). They turn everybody into deer and perform an operation on Joe the nasty cop in which they pull a heart-shaped candy box out of his chest, open it up, find some Styrofoam packing chips inside, and call it snow. I think that means he has a cold and hollow heart and that's why he's so nasty.

The angels are even more insipid and dumb than average humans, and I think that means that the cosmic forces controlling our lives may be just as ignorant as we are. That's a pretty sad concept, but thankfully Rossen gives us the happy ending we Americans so desperately need. In the extravaganza finale, true love finds its way, families are reconciled, and the angels agree to work at the restaurant at no charge while everyone dances, drinks champagne, and eats bonbons. If only life were so sweet for all Rust Belt babies.

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