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Young Blood, Real Talent

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LBJFKKK

Cardiff Giant

at Angel Island

I had begun to question my judgment. Was the theater I'd been seeing all that bad, or, as has often been suggested, did I really hate everything? Had I become jaded, bitter, burnt out? Was it time to apply for law school? I tell you, I was seriously thinking of leaving this theater crap behind to someone with a greater capacity for self-delusion. Then I went to see LBJFKKK.

I'll admit I wasn't dying to see this play. I mean, there's so much garbage out there. All these pathetic little comedy groups modeling themselves after Second City, which has been a dreadful bore for years. Face it, it's just comedy for drunks. And LBJFKKK didn't promise to be anything different. The title alone--which turns out to be as irrelevant as it is dumb--is enough to make you stay home. So there I was expecting the worst, slipping on my executioner's mask as the house lights dimmed. And then these actors came out and made me laugh until I cried. What a fine show!

You've got to see this. I'm going to try to tell you why you should but really it's going to boil down to "I guess you had to be there." Analyzing "Who's on first?" isn't as funny as seeing Abbott and Costello do it. So see this play now. Because it closes soon. All right?

Plot is no big deal here. Cardiff Giant's press release describes LBJFKKK as a comedy "about a neighborhood watch gone bad," and that's about it. But at least it's a play and not 23 sketches based on TV commercials and current events. And it's not the sort of play that makes use of strategically placed one-liners like The My House Play or Traveller in the Dark, which are the last couple shows I saw at Wisdom Bridge. Nor is it that sloppy, anything goes, keg-party humor. Nor, thank God, is it artsy or conceptual.

Well then, what is it? You don't see comedy like this much anymore. It's tight. It's got routines and running gags that actually work, like in the old days with the Marx Brothers. There's a scene where Jack (founder of the neighborhood watch and general busybody) visits the pet store to talk Sonny (clerk and recent high school graduate) into attending the community college. Only Jack needs a pretext for being there, so he buys a tiny frog, which Sonny carefully puts in a tiny box. Yet Jack is so preoccupied with making his point that he wags his finger at Sonny, rattling the frog to death. "Give me a real frog this time," Jack says, and Sonny boxes up a fresh one, but you know this frog too is doomed. You can see it coming, but you don't know how it's going to happen. And suddenly, almost in spite of your anticipation, the frog gets it, and you've been suckered by the routine. Slick and masterfully silly.

There are so many super routines to watch for. You'll admire the way Sylvia (the neighborhood recluse) drops a thousand seductive hints when Sonny comes to deliver her turtle, all the time commenting on how smart and perceptive he is. But Sonny doesn't figure it out until the next day. And at Jack's barbecue, everyone keeps raving about how fabulous the ribs smell, working themselves up into some kind of nasal orgy, until Martin (the local bum--excuse me, homeless person) exclaims, "I feel like I got a rib up my nose!" I reacted so spasmodically that time I think I snorted something on the person in front of me. Sometimes, like during Jack's psychodrama episode (which reduced me to a weeping, shaking simpleton), you actually can't hear the actors for the audience.

Look, the script is good and smart, but the truly amazing thing here is the performances. Not the performers, but the performances. I make that distinction because I'm so used to seeing performers displaying their "talents," being cute, acting like insufferable children showing off for the relatives. What I miss are the characters that these performers are supposed to portray. And that's at least as important in comedy as in any other kind of drama. This cast forks over some characters, and they hold the cuteness.

John Hildreth (as Jack) gives the best performance. From the opening monologue, when he explains the importance of the neighborhood-watch program, you seize the character of Jack. You may not know who he is yet, but you recognize the personality of the true believer. You've heard that compulsive laugh somewhere before. Someone like that once cornered you at an office party and talked politics while you racked your brain for an escape line. So Jack springs immediately to life, endowed with relentless purpose and attitude, complete with a nervous system, focused and fully articulated.

It's the difference between being presented with some lifeless doll captured in shrink wrap with all its accessories and cowering in amazement as GI Joe blasts his way out of his own gift box and attacks the cat.

This production is also extremely lucky to have Laura Fisher in the role of Sylvia. Her hands say everything that Sylvia thinks or feels, regardless of what she says. And when Jack and Sylvia share a scene there's an alternating current of tension that unpredictably erupts into hysteria. Together, they seem to function at about three times the normal pulse rate.

The cast is nicely rounded out by Mark Ray Hollmann (as Sonny) and Bob Fisher (as Martin). Hollmann plays Sonny as an unambitious kid, slightly punk in a small-town way, who's not crazy about things like junior college and the neighborhood watch. Martin is Sonny's occasional mentor and "sportin"' buddy, and a free-spirited counterpoint to the obsessive anal-retentive life-style characterized by Jack. Both characters aren't as intensely drawn as Jack and Sylvia. They're solid and funny enough in their own right, but less chemically reactive.

It's hard to say how much credit for this production goes to director Greg Kotis, since the show evolved (incredibly enough) out of company improvisation. I will say there's some deft comic timing and elaborate physical humor--and these things don't just happen. Most of all, fight scenes don't just happen. And LBJFKKK has both the best and the funniest fight scene that I've ever seen onstage. It may have lasted less than a minute, but it outclasses Hulk Hogan's entire career.

I've nothing bad to say about this show. Whatever flaws it has, let someone else stick his fingers in them. Nor am I bothered by the probability that this show won't end war or feed the hungry. It does the job it set out to do. I laugh aloud when I remember parts of it. I'm awash in endorphins, and professionally refreshed with the knowledge that there's young blood out there with real talent.

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

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