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Swamp Foxes


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Organic Theater

As disappointing as theater often is, it's usually superior to even the most accomplished feats of its bastard offspring, television. That's because theater is a live art, with 25 centuries of history, with an audience gathered from its community--ephemeral, vulnerable to the unexpected, and, each evening, unique. Theater can be good, and more often bad, but it will never be sterile. TV is sterile, like a mule, the result of an ugly union between theater and high-stakes technology. TV will never mate with its audience and become a living art. It can only carry dumbly the burden of its audience's boredom, and will proceed in no particular direction except downhill.

Swamp Foxes is a behind-the-tube look at prime-time TV. The once popular TV series Swamp Foxes is slipping in the ratings. Jim, the director of programming, and Roger, the writer, plot to salvage their careers by setting up a fall guy, Doug, a Michigan scholar and author whose unsolicited scripts can be blamed for the show's failure. But Doug's scripts, once Roger doctors them up, prove enormously successful. Not only that, Doug's treatment for a new series, The Whalers, becomes such a hot property that everyone starts kissing Doug's ass--except Lucy (the star of Swamp Foxes), who takes a frontal approach. Eventually, Doug is exposed as an impostor. His Swamp Foxes scripts are rewrites of old M*A*S*H episodes, and The Whalers is a treatment of Moby-Dick. Yet in this business it hardly seems to matter, and perhaps because of the boldness of his hoax, Doug is hailed as a brilliant "idea man."

So you see, Swamp Foxes is an extremely broad-based satire, taking on the hyena pack of programming executives, the burned-out and derivative legacy of the sitcom, the prostitution of everyone involved with prime-time TV, and the superficial cultural climate of southern California in general. And playwright Laurence Gonzales should know what he's talking about, since he's written for Simon and Simon and The Scarecrow and Mrs. Miller.

What's ironic about the play, though, is that it does a much better job of embodying the aesthetic abuse of TV than it does of satirizing it. The satire is essentially a collection of cheap shots and cliches: a producer who made his mark with a Tidy Bowl commercial, a female actor who whored her way to the top, a director of programming who thinks only in terms of "concepts." But Swamp Foxes, in itself, is video to the core. The dialogue is a tedious rosary of witticism upon witticism, resembling nothing so much as M*A*S*H, in that everything Hawkeye said was a witticism, but was never witty. The format--a backstage context peopled by a writer, a producer, a star, and an initiate from the outside world--is right out of The Dick Van Dyke Show, or The Mary Tyler Moore Show, for that matter. And the content, since Swamp Foxes has almost nothing original to say, resembles all the dreck that's poisoned your mind ever since your mom first used the TV as a baby-sitter.

Really, gags are what Swamp Foxes is all about: California gags (Pizza Dude is open for breakfast, serving "all-meat doughnuts"), media gags ("I've been canceled more times than the space shuttle"), and the occasional off-color gag (involving John Dillinger's pickled dick). This last category may explain why Gonzales resorted to the theater to unleash this onslaught of hilarity. Certainly Roger's comment about job stress ("Hollywood's killed more Jews than Hitler") wouldn't have gotten past a TV story editor. Just imagine how these gags must have languished on index cards while Gonzales slaved away at The Scarecrow and Mrs. Miller.

Even so, Gonzales does get off one great line. The producer pitches The Whalers to the studio head, who of course never read Moby-Dick, with the single sentence: "This is a story about a man who's pissed at a whale." As far as I'm concerned, that says it all; the rest of Swamp Foxes is two hours of overkill.

The acting nearly eludes criticism since Gonzales provides so little in the way of characters. Jim, the director of programming (played by Gerry Becker), and Roger, the veteran writer (played by John Mohrlein), are such stock characters that both actors have little recourse except to grab those punch lines and go over the top. Becker and Mohrlein may not deserve a Jeff, but they've at least earned a guest spot on The Jeffersons. Lucy Childs is horribly miscast as Lucy--an inconsequential, ornamental, and essentially degrading role. James Krag doesn't have the slightest idea how to play Doug, which is not surprising since every motivation that Gonzales provides--money, sex, fame, friendship, and artistic values--is summarily undercut by Doug's behavior. Loren, the producer, is another inconsistent character, but Jeffrey Hutchinson uses a sly and comfortable stage presence to make Loren appear to be something more than a plot device.

There's a formula for Swamp Foxes that Gonzales didn't create, although he learned it to the point of second nature: plot is subordinate to gags, and character is subordinate to plot. Small wonder that Doug, the central character, is also the least distinct--an uncertain wad of clay shaped and reshaped to accommodate the twists in the plot. No wonder that director B.J. Jones should hustle that plot along to the point that actors are pouncing on cues and barking at each other; the audience doesn't have time to reflect on how stupid this show is. And even if you did stop to think, you'd be undermined and oppressed by the uncresting wave of banal witticisms. ("Diet Nam"--it's about a fat farm in Southeast Asia.)

But the most oppressive thing is that I used to go to the theater to escape this crap. Now, like Rambo, it's come to get me.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Topel.

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