THE CARROT CARROT AND OTHER PROCLIVITIES
ETA Creative Arts Foundation
There are only two kinds of people in the world, a friend recently suggested: talkers and listeners. Or to be more exact, those who love to talk and those who have to listen. And a lot of the world's unhappiness comes from that fact.
I wish my friend had seen The Carrot Carrot and Other Proclivities at Bailiwick, because I think she would have found in playwright Richard Kalinoski a soul mate of sorts. All four plays in this hour-long evening of so-called comic one-acts have the same basic structure: talker talks, listener listens; eventually listener tries to break in but is ignored by talker, who continues talking until Kalinoski finds some way to end the scene, either by having the listener flee the stage (also a stock nonending to TV comedy sketches) or by shocking the audience awake with a strong visual image. The Carrot Carrot, for example, ends when the talker symbolically castrates the listener.
As you might expect, this formula gets old fast. And Kalinoski does nothing to disguise these one-sided conversations the way David Mamet does. Mamet frequently punctuates what is essentially a monologue by having the listener break in every sentence or two with "Yeah?" "What?" or "All right." But Mamet's talkers manipulate their listeners, whose characters we know. And Mamet's near-monologues are fascinating in themselves, little self-contained stories. Kalinoski just allows his talkers to babble on and on about nothing until we could scream.
To make matters worse, director Molly Burns has arranged these one-acts in order of increasing predictability.
The first, The Proclivities of Linnie and Lou, introduces an eccentric couple so well matched that Lou's annoying tendency to go on and on about the sports car he plans to buy really turns Linnie on. When he stops speaking for a moment, Linnie begs him to continue. This may not sound like much--I think every improv troupe has at one time or another done a scene in which one actor, usually a man, drives another, usually a woman, to sexual ecstasy talking about food or cars. But Linnie and Lou is the only piece here in which the characters communicate with each other. True, Lou does most of the talking, but he still seems aware of Linnie's needs and is willing to adapt to them. In every other piece, information flows one way only.
In Specks, the second play, hausfrau Evie spends the entire time either operating a vacuum--she suffers from a cleaning compulsion--or blathering on about how badly the vacuum cleaner cleans. In either case, she never for a moment listens to her husband. In A Slow Brick on a Still Day daft Dr. Pissanti never allows his student to answer his questions about her paper, chattering on instead about baseball and literature. And in The Carrot Carrot, a powerful executive indulges in a pointless, long, incredibly digressive and vague monologue while her underling (whom she has summoned to the office) is reduced to the sort of lines Zeppo Marx used to deliver: yes, right, uh-huh.
I suppose Kalinoski (and by extension, Burns) thought these talking jags incredibly funny. And they could have been if Kalinoski had not stacked the deck so much in favor of the talkers. If the listeners had been given a chance to strike back, the way Harpo and Chico were able to get the better of Groucho, these plays might have had a little tension. It quickly becomes clear, however, that there is no comic justice in Kalinoski's plays: the annoying characters will remain on top, and the more sympathetic ones will just sit and take it.
Remarkably, Burns earned a place in Bailiwick's "Best of the Fest" for her direction of The Carrot Carrot in the 1991 Director's Festival. Perhaps her cast was absolutely electric the night her show went up. Perhaps the other entries were not very good. Certainly she has not been able to repeat any of her previous success, despite a capable and polished cast. Tom Hanigan in particular plays the comedy just the way it should be played, with subtlety and no apparent effort. Erica Tobolski, however, at times tries so hard to be funny that she undermines what little comedy there is in her scenes (she's the anal-retentive housewife, and later the control-freak exec). It's not really fair to criticize this cast too harshly, though. It's obvious from the first beat of the second play that the blame for these humorless, deadly dull pieces lies not in the stars but in the playwright.
Kalinoski should take a lesson from Crystal V. Rhodes, whose deceptively simple slice of life, Stoops, takes on an unexpected depth thanks in large part to Rhodes's gift for creating interesting, complex, living and breathing characters.
Stoops, structured as a series of vignettes covering the mid-60s to the late 70s, gives us scenes from the adolescence and early adulthood of three African American women. Kelly, Deara, and Corky live in adjoining houses in an unnamed inner city, and over the course of the play we see their fortunes rise and fall. Kelly turns from a shy girl whose mother beats her for every minor infraction to an overly aggressive political activist to a remarkably self-assured magazine editor. Corky grows from the neighborhood bully into a vocal grass-roots activist working to save their row of houses from demolition. Deara changes less--she remains a hapless, sweet young thing throughout. But, boy-crazy herself as a teenager, she does end up castigating her own daughter for the same offense.
In less sure hands such material could be either unbearably personal and obscure or sickeningly sentimental. But Rhodes is careful to make her characters likable without making them treacly, and their experiences growing up are recognizably universal without being cliched or predictable. In fact the most awkward moments in the play come when Rhodes adds moments of dramatic crisis, such as Kelly and Corky's big fight in the second act, or the murder of Kelly's brother offstage. Much more compelling are the less dramatic moments--like the scene in which a neighborhood boy, Rabbit, shows off his "new," freshly painted but used Schwinn bicycle.
Rhodes's material is well served by director Runako Jahi's capable cast in this revival by the ETA Creative Arts Foundation. Juliette Ferguson, Sanetta Y. Gipson, and Brian P. Weddington, as Corky, Deara, and Rabbit, seem equally at home as prepubescents, adolescents, and adults. As Kelly, Holly Hancock stumbles at first, offering a fatally dopey and cliched performance as Kelly the young girl (whoever told her that she could communicate Kelly's insecurity by sucking her thumb should be shot). But Hancock shows considerably more conviction playing Kelly as an adult.
Stoops has been criticized for presenting a romanticized view of inner-city life. That complaint fails to take into account the fact that every work of art transforms reality. And given the choice, I'd rather see something charming and lively like Stoops than suffer through another desperately unfunny comedy like The Carrot Carrot.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin--Jennifer Girard Studio.