WHERE'S THE CHEESE?
The Other Half Theater Company
at Cafe Voltaire
Now that we're living in the information age, when letters can loop the globe in seconds via the Internet, when national news can be turned almost instantaneously into television movies, when channel surfing can unleash thousands of images in minutes, how come things seem to happen slower than ever? Why does it take five times as long to do a resume on a Macintosh than it did on an old Underwood typewriter? And why is it that even though everything keeps getting faster and faster so many people in their 20s seem so zombified? Their eyes move fast, but their ambitions move slow. Maybe the world speeding by creates stunned silence rather than exhilaration.
The supersonic technological age notwithstanding, virtually every recent artistic depiction of twentysomething life concentrates on its aimlessness, slowness, and purposelessness. In films like Reality Bites, the forthcoming Clerks, and even Go Fish, creative editing disguises a world in which very little happens. When Eddie Vedder sings that he's still alive, it's almost as if he's trying to wake himself out of a stupor to convince himself.
Nick Digilio and Mike Meredith's Alive at the Factory Theater is one of the most wildly entertaining Tilt-A-Whirl rides about nothingness to hit the stage in quite some time, so gleefully paced that occasionally you can forget how depressingly empty the lives of its characters are. It's like Beckett rewritten for MTV. This play succeeds where most other plays about disaffected jamokes in their 20s fail (see Generation Why? at Cafe Voltaire) because it explores complex, individual characters instead of blathering on about the struggles of a generation. This raucous, witty, vulgar, disgusting excursion into the lives of six all-too-familiar drinking-buddy slobs almost perfectly encapsulates the fast-talking, slow-moving life-style of that most heinous twentynothing figure: The Guy.
There's the slightest hint of a plot in Digilio and Meredith's play, something about someone leaving his pack of guy friends for good, but mostly it's about drinking and playing cards and making lewd jokes and boasting about mythical sexual encounters and drinking and getting into fights and puking and drinking some more and making homophobic remarks and insulting people's mothers and playing drinking games and drinking some more. In short, it's about the lives of a zillion dudes out there. At times its language is brutally offensive, but it's almost always sadly accurate too.
The characters would seem an obvious bunch--the disillusioned writer, the musician who can't get a gig, the gun-toting redneck, and so on. But in Alive they're more than hackneyed types: they're actual living, breathing humans of the sort you can see every day working in bars, restaurants, and copy shops, dreaming big but still living with the folks and spending every weekend in the same sophomoric rituals. And it's refreshing to see someone finally admit that the sexist bile that supposedly comes from the mouths of truck drivers and construction workers also comes from artists and writers and musicians. The references to 70s pop-culture icons (Abba, Star Wars) so prevalent in every recent play or movie about 90s youth (see Quentin Tarantino's forthcoming flick Pulp Fiction: "Were you a Brady Bunch kid or a Partridge Family kid?") aren't just there for cheap laughs--in Alive those references reveal something about the characters. One scene in which two guys reminisce about their lost childhood by imitating all the figures in the Star Wars trilogy is especially hilarious, touching, and real.
Most of all, though, this show works because of the brilliant, nonstop energy of Factory Theater's ensemble: they make every dumb bit of dialogue, every occasionally troubling bit of racism and misogyny, every air-guitar-to-Pearl Jam sequence seem utterly real. Sure, there are dead patches here and there, particularly when the playwrights try to get serious and profound. But most of the way through it's a hell of a show, kind of like an all-night binge. It starts out slow, then gets wild, crazy, and all over the place, and only after the last shot does it start to thump you over the head with its point: the pointlessness of this generation.
Where Alive uses speed and zippy repartee to reveal pointlessness, Robert Laine's one-act Burger Death, part of the double bill "Where's the Cheese?" at Cafe Voltaire, uses a deliberately stoned, super-slo-mo pace to capture the stagnation of the modern youth life-style. This more obvious choice, using slothfulness to show sloth, has its moments of truth, but ultimately it leaves the audience as uninterested as the blank-staring characters.
Performed almost like a staged reading, Burger Death tries to expose the boredom of existence in the 90s through the parallel lives of its two protagonists--a stoner working at Toys "R" Us and another managing a Burger King--interspersed with scenes from their workdays. Laine's one-act is intelligently written and has some truly witty moments (especially in David Smith's performance, sneaking tokes outside Toys "R" Us) before it devolves into a tragedy of drug abuse with a troublingly realistic air. But since the play is recited more than performed, it feels more like the outline of a play than a play itself. At this point Burger Death is an intriguing short story, perhaps the starting point for a more complex work for the stage.
Kevin King's Kopy Kats, the second one-act of "Where's the Cheese?," also features a surprisingly slow pace for a late-night show, which needs to keep its audience awake. But where lack of speed has a thematic purpose in Burger Death, in Kopy Kats it's merely evidence of overwriting and lack of direction. The many faults of this tame expose of the cutthroat world of advertising copywriters, with a script that continually belabors the obvious, are magnified by actors who seem to give the pauses between lines the same amount of time as the lines themselves.
The supposedly surprising twists and turns of the plot, about a hotshot jingle writer who's built his reputation on a lie and the innocent intern whose ideas get stolen, are telegraphed long before they occur. The inauthentic office patter often seems padded to fill the play's hour-plus length. There are a couple of nice performances (Smith as the unctuous hotshot, and Burger Death author Laine as a spastic ad weasel), but King directed his own script and pays far too much reverence to his own words. A big scissors, a faster pace, and a new director might turn this play into a mildly diverting half-hour sitcom. But so far it's just sloooow.