RERUN PLANET: THE ABDUCTION OF LINDA ZONEHAIR TO THE PLANET VIDEO SPONGO AND THE SHOCKINGLY DEAD AFTERMATH
GIRLS WE HAVE KNOWN
Griffin Theatre Company
One of the great disappointments of my childhood came about the day I discovered, after years of following NASA's manned space program religiously on TV (the walls of my room were covered with memorabilia from the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions), that the first shots of the Sea of Tranquility looked a lot like the thick layer of dust that had accumulated under my bed. Ever since then space exploration has seemed a nonstop bore. I'm even convinced that when and if we ever make contact with extraterrestrials the event will usher in, not an era of Spielbergian wonder and spiritual awakening, but just another variation of the same old same old we've been enduring ever since we were thrown out of Eden.
Which may explain why I was so taken with Dan Ursini's one-person one-act, a satirical fantasy comedy called Rerun Planet: The Abduction of Linda Zonehair to the Planet Video Spongo and the Shockingly Dead Aftermath: the title character discovers that the aliens lead lives every bit as mundane as our own--if not more so, since these creatures have patterned their civilization exclusively on the more vulgar aspects of American popular culture. On the outside their spacecraft looks like an ashtray stolen from a cheesy Las Vegas hotel, and on the inside it's like a huge, multistoried shopping mall. These aliens depend for their sustenance upon the constant ingestion of trivia, celebrity gossip, and TV reruns, which they extract from the memories of the humans they capture.
Ursini milks this odd alternative world for every laugh he can get. Even the aliens' names--Alvin, Simon, Theodore, Sergeant Fury--are lifted from bad pop culture. What makes Rerun Planet smarter than your average sci-fi parody is the way Ursini, in the tradition of Jonathan Swift, uses his fantasy world to lampoon the least attractive features of our world. Thus the most ambitious alien Linda meets wants to be on TV, and the only work Linda can find while imprisoned on the "Mega-Ashtray" is a job in a fast-food restaurant not unlike the dead-end job she had on earth. Ursini even takes a few swipes at our current economic malaise: Linda lives in government-subsidized housing, "Yupshacks," created "exclusively for the victims of career devastation."
There are times when Ursini's play is reminiscent of other, better-known works. Linda's relationship with the information-hungry aliens, for example, could have been lifted from Jane Wagner's The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, while the dystopian near future Ursini describes in the play parallels the one in Stephen Tesich's Square One. But there's so much that's dazzling and original in this play, including the metaphysical joke that planet Video Spongo may have been created out of the collective unconscious of our TV- addled civilization, that it seems unlikely the parallels to Wagner's and Tesich's work are anything but coincidental.
Naturally, the success of this comedy depends a lot, perhaps entirely, on casting the right person as Linda. Happily, stand-up-comic-turned-actress Cathy Carlson from the moment she enters the theater, her teased henna-red hair tied up like Pebbles Flintstone's, her eyes darting eccentrically around the audience, proves herself follicle and dendrite Linda Zonehair. Unlike Jane Baxter Miller, who never seemed consistently at ease as the title character in Ursini's less successful one-woman show Susie Luck: Hostess of Mental Florida (performed last summer at Club Lower Links), Carlson seems completely at home with every bizarre twist in the script. She even manages to make it seem perfectly normal that the abducted Zonehair must take a job on the alien spacecraft.
In fact Ursini, who according to the program "served as the resident playwright for an early incarnation of Steppenwolf Theatre," has found such an apt actress in Carlson that it's hard not to hope that Rerun Planet will be just the first of many oddball sci-fi Ursini comedies starring her.
When I asked a friend if she wanted to come with me to see Griffin Theatre's late-night show, Girls We Have Known, she said no--she'd seen enough tedious plays, movies, and TV shows about male bonding to last her a lifetime. I accused her of being prejudiced, went alone, and found after suffering through this plotless, contrived, and undramatic one-act that she was right, at least about this show. There is nothing in Ralph Pape's play that hasn't been better explored elsewhere.
What little story there is concerns two friends, Alan and Ernie, who spend a long cross-country drive discussing the various women in their lives. Oddly enough, since they're all we've got, these long dialogues--most of them blather about grammar-school crushes and postadolescent sexual conquests, none of it very believable--don't seem very important. Of course these two are such very different types--Alan is a brainy, well-read preppie, while Ernie is a brawny working stiff in the Stallone mold--that it's surprising they have anything to say to each other, much less travel across the country together when Alan needs a lift from New York to Los Angeles and back. Nor does it even matter that every revelation in the story--that Ernie attracts women by pretending to be shy, that Alan makes a habit of seducing women Ernie attracts, that the estranged love of Ernie's life died a year ago and Ernie didn't know--rings false.
What seems to matter is that Pape was able to fashion a work that slavishly repeats every well-worn ritual of two men talking--that we know at every moment that we are watching a play about male bonding. He even inserts a phony climax or two (one an utterly unbelievable episode when Alan, paralyzed by fear, can't take his foot off the accelerator, and the other a fistfight between the two that ends with them chuckling, like a pair of self-absorbed lovers, in each other's arms) just so we know we're watching a work that was created by a playwright.
Even more frustrating is the fact that Wayne Pyle and Jim Cantafio, as Alan and Ernie respectively, clearly deserve a much better script--both would shine if they had real characters to play and not warmed-over cliches. Cantafio in particular gives Ernie so much intelligence and warmth that he almost, but not quite, escapes being a blue-collar stereotype. Ultimately, however, actors are only as good as the material they're given, and this is dismal.
According to the press release, Girls We Have Known was first produced at Playwrights Horizon, a detail that frankly surprises me because the play has "student work" written all over it. But then, some of us remain students long after we graduate.