An American Kitchen
at the American Blues Theatre
By Carol Burbank
In the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, conspiracy comedy might seem a tasteless paradox. But Scott Anderson in An American Kitchen rushes boldly into the center of that oxymoron, drawing much of the play's tense humor from our realization that terrorist violence often begins at home, with discontented U.S. citizens. Funny but not entertaining, Anderson's ambitious experiment only partly succeeds: in this sitcom world the characters' desperation stagnates, all their tension and energy diffused by comedy.
The kitchen in question is presented literally, with an almost campy superrealism, from steaming stew to matching place mats. Designer Joseph Wade creates an excessively nice setting that enshrines the ordinary, using details like incredibly perky curtains decorated with bright vegetables and, guarding the hall entrance, the silhouette of a manly Roman centurion statue. It's the picture of bourgeois respectability we've come to expect from sitcoms; however, the characters in this Playhouse world premiere are much less reassuring than their home.
The three conspirators--including the ringleader and owner of the kitchen, Harold--plan to burst into an unnamed building with rifles, smash everything there, and read a manifesto that explains an unknown cause. Two will be "wreckers" while one, the sentinel, waits with a walkie-talkie in the car. But they can't agree on who will be the sentinel, a conflict that drives the plot. Director Eric Wegener sets a fast pace with their divisive bickering, revealing the characters' relationships, motivations, and weaknesses. Confessing their hollowness and fears in confrontations that skim over darker disaffections, the characters present a pitiful, forced innocence. These are ordinary people who've strayed into a despairing and mysterious alliance.
The structure of the story matches the sitcom realism of the set. Each character has a shtick that defines him or her, and the situation at the heart of the comedy is contained, if barely, by domestic middle-class values and relationships. Their conspiracy has all the trappings of the nice, foolhardy ineptitude that characterizes television's unhappy marriages and dysfunctional families, surrounded as these are by reassuring laugh tracks. Granted, most sitcoms aren't about three radical activists willing to kill or be killed. It would be an odd pitch to a network: Three's Company with a macabre twist. Instead of loving friends who work as a chef, a model, and a secretary, we get a violent, antisocial cadre made up of a control freak, a brutal lackey, and a suicidal masochist.
This little band of self-proclaimed "revolutionizers" is brought together as much by the ringleader's cooking as by a collective passion for "the cause." Carri Sullens plays the manic, suicidal sentinel Angie with an intriguing mix of barely controlled rage, self-hatred, and obsessive intelligence. Angie likes to burn herself on the stove, G. Gordon Liddy style, and keeps checking her phone messages for any sign of friends beyond her ill-fated coconspirators. The lunkish Owen (Ken Bradly) is equally friendless: rhapsodizing about Harold's excellent burrito dinners, he dreams simply of being visible to the world. James Leaming's Harold is the unlikely leader, a fastidious, clerkish man whose motivation seems to be his need to make things nice even if he has to destroy them in the process. This clever, chilling, deceptively domestic agenda could justify many political causes, from white supremacy to antilitter activism.
Norman Lear might have predicted the queasy sense of disorientation inherent in this frightening parody of his signature genre, although moments of inspired repartee mock the domestic explosions of television. In one of their funniest fast-paced debates, the three decide that they are not the "king weird fuckers" they despise and plan to depose; they're just "quirky" and "eccentric." Anderson takes every opportunity to make fun of his characters' stylized inarticulateness. Harold, trying to deliver a pep talk, is finally overcome by his own banality, stammering out that his goal is to "put all the crap out there into some small area that we don't have to see." If Anderson's parody were always this clear, An American Kitchen would have been more consistently entertaining.
But the three conspirators express such despair and emptiness that the zap, which may or may not happen after the play ends, takes on an ominous goofiness that makes their manifesto irrelevant. As debates escalate into physical violence, they retreat into a bloody Beaver Cleaver normalcy, sullenly eating their beef stew and fresh bread with extra honey in silence. The playwright's somewhat heavy-handed moral is obvious: these people are dangerous not because they're crazy--they're not--but because their lives are empty. Anderson would probably agree with the cartoon character Pogo: "We has met the enemy, and it is us." But the playwright gives us no guidance about what we should do with ourselves.