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Adding Insult to Comedy

The alienation device that works all too well undermines Spin.

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Spin Theater Wit

Implicating the audience is supposed to be a radical strategy. Leave the house lights on, stick us in the middle of the action, give us tasks to do—anything to make it impossible for us to hide in the dark and pretend we've got no blood on our hands. Lately, though, the approach has been generating a lot more inconvenience than indictment. I still haven't figured out, for instance, why I had to stand up and occasionally get shoved around during the Hypocrites' production of Frankenstein last fall. Was I being equated with the mad scientist? His monster? The angry townsfolk? Was there some take-away in having to glimpse scenes through a shifting crowd? Hard to say. I just know I was annoyed.

In Spin, playwright Penny Penniston makes an especially mystifying attempt to put her audience on the defensive. The gesture comes across as cheap, childish, and unnecessary—a superficial and simplistic bid for depth and complexity. Worst of all, it undermines Jeremy Wechsler's sharp Theater Wit production—the first in Wit's new, three-theater complex—and obscures the fact that the rest of Penniston's play is actually pretty good.

Spin is a comedy about authenticity, populated mainly by characters who don't have any. Naturally, it revolves around the advertising business. Fortyish Brent was a hot art director until he effectively resigned by throwing something heavy—there's a difference of opinion about what—at his boss. Now, newly divorced, he lives alone, reads self-help books, keeps a miniature Japanese sand garden on his coffee table, and fancies himself a Buddhist. As part of his campaign to lead a pure and virtuous life, he's intervened in a violent lovers' quarrel between two street kids and brought the manhandled girl, Danielle, back to the alleged safety of his Lincoln Park duplex. He's not sure what to do with her at first, but she knows what she wants. Though far from nefarious, Danielle is closely, closely attuned to life on the material plane; she gets Brent to overcome his good sense and let her stay the night—on a pure and virtuous basis.

While Danielle's off taking her shower, Brent gets a surprise visit from his old agency buddies Redge and Jack. A committed amoralist who lives to sell, Redge goes back a long way with Brent and still misses their partnership. He and Jack are about to give a presentation for a wildly lucrative beer account, but they know that what they've got is crap. They need the old Brent magic. So much for the eightfold path.

Penniston adds in Danielle's boyfriend, Aaron—a hapless, irredeemably wholesome anti-globalism anarchist trying to graduate to terrorism—and follows the permutations as the beer pitch turns into a full-fledged campaign involving an African-American tennis prodigy named Ruby Jones. They all meet with temptations, the responses to which will leave them with no illusions about who they really are—and Brent in particular finds he has to shit or get off the pot, spirituality-wise. It all gets darker and more painful even as the farce builds.

Penniston has worked as an advertising copywriter and it shows in her (a) knack for the pithy line, and (b) well-wrought sense of the absurd. Jack is the prime beneficiary of both: a Jaques who resorts to wit as a way to keep from cringing at the world and his appalling place in it, he gets bare, sour one-liners (Aaron, sneering: "You're wearing a Rolex." Jack, no need to sneer: "You're wearing a beret.") in the tradition of Oscar Levant. She also supplies conceits that give Wechsler's cast great opportunities for play. As a joke on Brent, for instance, the set for the beer commercial is designed to mimic his living room, which makes it possible for Joe Foust's Redge to get a meaningful laugh about fakery out of something as simple as making a canvas wall ripple with a touch.

The whole cast is capable of taking those opportunities, and more. Like Foust, Alice Wedoff and Coburn Goss tread queasy moral lines as Danielle and Brent, endearing themselves even as they make ugly, narcissistic choices. Lance Baker, meanwhile, makes a desert-dry masterpiece of Jack.

But then Penniston has to go and spoil it all with a useless alienation device. Every so often, a character is sent off to the side of the set to deliver a speech directly to the audience, beginning with the line, "I know you're watching," and going on to critique some aspect of 21st-century voyeur culture. At first this comes across as a harmless pretension, similar to Penniston's lame attempt to relate Spin to The Wizard of Oz. But after a while, the critique becomes a judgment on us audience members, for watching the play. Ultimately, Brent tells us with a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger sigh that we should all just "go home." Not only is this kind of silly, since we were about to do that anyway, the show being over, it's also a strange negation, suggesting that the play can't make the point it seemed to be making very entertainingly. Worst of all, though, it's bad manners—a pointless betrayal for the sake of a flourish that doesn't rise to the level of a statement. After all, they asked us to come.   

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