Poison Nut Productions
at Rudely Elegant Theater and Gallery
There's nothing special about Poison Nut Productions' Kid Purple, but nothing awful either. The comedy hits a certain comfort level and never ventures beyond it. The players perform competently, never either distinguishing or embarrassing themselves. Kid Purple is your average theater experience--except for the end, whose inadvertent message may have escaped even the playwright.
This two-act play by Donald Wollner is about Benjamin Schwartz, who was born with a purple head. His upper-middle-class family expect Benjamin to become a lawyer, but because of his lack of brainpower and strange disability he gets sidetracked into a boxing career.
This is certainly a workable premise for comedy. The class conflicts between Benjamin's family and the boxing world have plenty of potential. The occasional parallels Wollner draws between Benjamin's odd pigmentation and racial tensions lend themselves to both pain and laughter--which usually make for the best kind of comedy. But it seems that whenever Wollner was faced with a decision about direction, he chose to take the easiest road.
The story telling in Kid Purple is straightforward, with nary a touch of nuance or irony. The few times Wollner approaches a potential racial metaphor, for example, his characters mean exactly what they say. In one scene Benjamin's trainer, an African American named Willie Hogan, tries to explain to him that white heavyweights have more commercial value than black heavyweights. "I'm not white," Benjamin responds. "I'm purple." And that's that. That Benjamin Schwartz is probably Jewish isn't touched upon at all--even though it would make sense with some of the class material Wollner uses.
Essentially Kid Purple is a slightly offbeat retelling of an archetypal boxing story. Boys who are made fun of by other kids because of their disabilities--in this case, Benjamin for his purple head and reigning champion Sweet Eddie for his stutter--seek social equilibrium, if not downright revenge, by channeling their anger and pain into boxing's controlled violence. In the ring they find money, power, even sexual potency. Eventually, however, the unhappiness that hurled them into this cruel sport rears its ugly head again. These hurt souls want to be loved for who they are, not just for their many titles or their public personas. At some point Benjamin realizes that, no matter how much money or success he's achieved, he's still miserable.
Wollner struggles to explain this ennui. The most obvious culprits are the unnamed, unseen taunters from childhood, but Wollner also points a misogynistic finger at Benjamin's mother. Throughout Kid Purple his mother is seen as slightly neurotic but generally supportive of her son's career choice despite her disapproval. She is, after all, the only one on earth who has any real faith in him--even if it's faith in something as unlikely as his becoming an attorney. Benjamin's father is so completely invisible that one of the play's running jokes is that Benjamin's not even sure what the guy looks like.
Yet when it comes to personifying Benjamin's troubles, Wollner--through his character--projects all the anger squarely against Benjamin's mother and absolutely forgives his father. Indeed, Benjamin wins the heavyweight title by pretending his opponent is his mother.
This victory, however, is hollow. Even whomping his mother doesn't take away her power to perturb him: at a custody hearing involving a sleazy childhood friend with whom Benjamin's had a one-night stand, he keeps seeing the judge as his mother. And as if that weren't enough, though Benjamin doesn't have the slightest evidence of this friend's ability to love him but does see that she's quite enamored of his money, he proclaims his love by telling her he's got $80 million. Benjamin buys his happiness--making the ending one of the most depressing I've seen in ages.