at the Eclipse Theatre Company
ICE CREAM MAN
at Cafe Voltaire
When performers are given material that's beneath their talents, it's possible to respond in a couple of ways. They can either thrust themselves full force into it, like Laurence Olivier snarfing down the scenery in Neil Diamond's version of The Jazz Singer. Or they can bullshit their way through with a cheeky, winking smile, like Peter O'Toole in every movie he's made in the past decade, making sure the audience knows they can do better. In either case, both audience and performer are cheated.
In Stephen Serpas's Xenogenesis, an incredibly talented ensemble of actors billing themselves as the Dog Boys manage to showcase talents that greatly outshine the overblown, meandering script they've been given. The Boys, eight graduates of the Theatre School at DePaul, display their wonderful gifts for mimicry, sound effects, and comic timing while plodding through Serpas's convoluted story of the world's first pregnant boy and the maniacal, gene-manipulating scientist who made him that way.
I don't recall having seen a successful science-fiction play since the Organic's production of Warp! Too often, the sci-fi author spends so much time making his cockeyed vision of the future seem both scientific and plausible that such necessities as character development and coherent plotting get lost. In his eagerness to explain recombinant DNA and cryogenics, Serpas fails to tell an interesting story about real people.
Xenogenesis, a thinking man's version of Joan Rivers's directorial debut, the 70s stinkeroo Rabbit Test, hovers uneasily between a Margaret Atwood novel and a Jerry Lewis movie. After yawning in Technicolor in front of the Clark and Belmont Dunkin' Donuts, 17-year-old Jimmy Day learns he has morning sickness. Jimmy's uncle, Dr. Philip Day, takes care of the boy, who attempts suicide and is later kidnapped by Sumpter Green, the brainwashed henchman of the evil Henry Bekman, who's founded an institution designed to revolutionize reproduction. It's left to Dr. Day and a couple of FBI men--one a transsexual who carried Jimmy in her uterus while still a female--to save Jimmy from the plots of Bekman, who envisions a society where death is obsolete and women are no longer necessary for childbearing.
This sort of ridiculous plotting might be a little more acceptable if the play weren't so long-winded. It drags on, with endless flashbacks and dull lecture-hall exposition about the dangers of genetic engineering. Few of the characters develop full-blown personalities, and those who do are at the mercy of the preposterous plot.
To the rescue of Xenogenesis come the Dog Boys, who save Serpas's play with no end of fabulous gimmicks, brilliantly orchestrated by director Ric Murphy. The Boys give each scene hilarious background noises, perfectly imitating the sounds of hospital doors, intercoms, car motors, sliding doors, talking clocks, crying babies, muffled conversations, medical equipment, birdcalls, and beat box music. Recalling the old days of radio theater, the Dog Boys use nothing but their bodies and voices to paint a picture of every setting in the play. In one really terrific sequence, Christopher Holloway's pantomime and the Dog Boys' sound effects take us from a car to a ventilation duct to a hospital room and into an airplane without benefit of a single prop.
Serpas certainly isn't at a loss for situations that call forth the Dog Boys' skills, but after a little while the actors' talents completely eclipse the play. When the audience is more interested in watching how the guys in the back row make water noises than in figuring out what's happening center stage, you've got a problem. It would be interesting to see how the Dog Boys might use their unique talents to reinvent classic plays, say Our Town, strengthening a strong work instead of trying to rescue a mediocre one.
Unlike the Dog Boys, the improv-based company behind Ice Cream Man show all the signs of being classic underachievers. Like the classroom wiseass who fears failure and therefore doesn't give his full effort, the writers and performers of Ice Cream Man deliver their low-aiming material with a shit-eating grin, informing us at every turn that they have no pretensions whatsoever.
Ice Cream Man is the sort of show that, in the tradition of Annoyance Theatre, seems to answer every criticism of its content with the snappy "It's supposed to be that way." The story of an ice cream man who's framed by his childhood nemesis, who seeks to make a bundle by making crack-flavored ice cream, is in a bit of bad taste, isn't it? It's supposed to be that way. The idea of a serial-killing Good Humor man is a little gross, isn't it? It's supposed to be gross. Don't you think the lyrics of the songs are pretty dumb? They're supposed to be dumb.
Yeah, OK. I suppose there's nothing wrong with doing a cute, goofy show with most of its jokes stolen from places like Police Squad and Woody Allen's "Oedipus Wrecks" in New York Stories. And admittedly there are laughs in Ice Cream Man. But unless I miss my guess, there seems to be a lot of talent just being pissed away on this dorky little show.
Even when she's singing about her infatuation with the ice cream man, Brearley Rauch as the wide-eyed, cutesy-poo Candy has a killer of a voice and an engaging stage presence. And when Jane Amanda Kuhlke as the villain's moll sings about the rigors of an involvement with a murderer and crack dealer, her assertion that "Life is a bitch when you're married to an asshole" stops the show. Ed Smaron and Walter Tambor's tunes are surprisingly catchy. True, the guys in the cast can't sing worth a damn, but they make up for it with some pretty amusing characterizations, especially Rich Fulcher and Greg Lindsay in a variety of supporting roles and Kevin Scott as the puckishly enthusiastic ice cream man.
Scott is also credited with writing this show, and so must bear the responsibility for such lines as "That was so funny I almost sandpapered your gums and fed you lemonade." But there are moments of true comedic inspiration here too that make Ice Cream Man a very watchable, if extremely sophomoric, effort.
This show inspires the same comment the underachievers in school used to: Imagine what they could do if they really tried.