Western Expansion Productions
at the Theatre Building
Sharp satire is penetrating and incisive. It lays open an issue to reveal the hypocrisy and contradiction within. Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury comic strip is sharp satire. Anything that comes out of Mort Sahl's mouth is sharp satire.
Then there's blunt satire, which merely bludgeons the audience with the obvious--a clown who puts basketballs under his shirt and pretends to be Dolly Parton.
Coming Attractions, by Ted Talley, is blunt satire. With all the sophistication of a drunken college sophomore, it keeps hammering home the same idea: crime--at least notorious crime--pays. "Small crime, do time; big crime, gold mine," says an unscrupulous talent agent in one of the wittiest lines of the play.
Actually, the public fascination with mass murder could be the topic of sharp satire. If you kill enough people, you can be sure someone will write a book about you. Truman Capote's In Cold Blood immortalized two ex-cons who wiped out an entire family. Helter Skelter, which chronicled the Charles Manson case, was a best-seller. Jimmy Breslin got some good mileage out of David "Son of Sam" Berkowitz, who randomly blew people away with a revolver. John Wayne Gacy, the part-time clown from Des Plaines who murdered 33 young men after having sex with them, is the subject of several books.
There is something tasteless about bestowing celebrity on psychopaths, but Coming Attractions is simply bad taste. Ted Talley never discovers the underlying irony.
Coming Attractions is about a petty crook named Lonnie Wayne Burke who takes four hostages during a botched robbery. Manny Alter, a publicity agent, talks him into surrendering by promising him fame and fortune. "You're vicious, but you got no vision," he tells Lonnie. "Listen to me, kid, guys who can't do nothing but squeeze a trigger have had their day. But guys who can squeeze a trigger and then take a meeting for the book rights . . . well, they're getting Swiss bankers, and snatch that would bug your eyes out."
Manny comes up with a gimmick--Lonnie will wear a skeleton costume and go up to a house selected at random. He will ring the doorbell and, when someone answers, he will shout, "Trick or treat, you bourgeois pig," and shoot the person between the eyes.
Of course, it works. Soon newscasters are chirping excitedly about the "Halloween Killer." After a few dozen murders, Manny decides to turn Lonnie over to the police and cash in on his investment, but he wants the capture to be sensational, so he disguises Lonnie as Miss Wyoming and enters him in the Miss America contest. When the winner is selected, Lonnie is supposed to assassinate her on national television and surrender.
Unfortunately, he falls in love with the winner, which leads to poverty, despair, and, worst of all, anonymity. Although he avoids a jail sentence for his crimes, he begs for punishment--and gets it.
Although the script is insipid, the members of Western Expansion Productions--most of them recent DePaul University graduates--display talent and solid training. Phil Ridarelli actually gives some personality to Lonnie, making the killer seem dim-witted and vain--a plausible approach to a very implausible character. Richard Burton Brown, who stepped in just days before opening, is wonderfully smarmy as Manny Alter. That's surprising since Brown looks naturally friendly and affable, sort of like a basset hound with a twinkle in his eye. Though cast against type, he manages to add a nice sleazy edge to his performance.
Chet Grissom (who bears an amazing resemblance to Mick Jagger) is memorable as Sammy Dazzle, an obnoxious talk-show host who sings "The Magic of Me" to his viewers: "If I were you (God help me), that's where I'd be--watching the magic of me!"
The rest of the cast members play several small roles, many of them bizarre. Jim Reinach, for example, plays an Arab "terrorist comedian" whose jokes must be translated by an interpreter, played by Todd Foland. ("You've been a wonderful audience. I wish I could take you all home with me . . . in chains.")
Meaghan McCarville plays a groupie who only goes to bed with has-beens and who keeps a sample of each man's pubic hair as a souvenir. Kathryn King plays the insipid Miss America who leads Lonnie away from a life of homicide.
Todd Foland is also the musical director, and brings a slick, humorous touch to the songs. Richard Dennis's direction is brisk and broad, as it should be for a play like this. His biggest mistake was picking this play.