BWW Review: Mac Wellman's skewering of America in BAD PENNY and SINCERITY FOREVER at Flea Theater
BWW Review: A blistering indictment of America in the revivals of BAD PENNY and SINCERITY FOREVER
"I do not feel compelled by reason to accept this theory of evolution, nor the periodic table of elements, nor the theory of global warming, nor the supposed crimes against the Jews attributed to one Rudolf Hitler." Bad Penny and Sincerity Forever are Mac Wellman plays originally staged in 1989 and 1990. Absolutely nothing is dated or stale in his evisceration and condemnation of America and its "littleness and stupidity and bitterness and rage and greed."
Bad Penny is the first production performed in the new outside venue of Pete's Courtyard at the Flea Theater. I took my seat at the picnic table. There were chairs, blankets and mats. The audience is an intimately-sized two dozen. The cast trickles in. Some lightly humorous cornhole is played. Then Woman #1 (Emma Orme) begins ruminating on the nature of the sky. Is it "one big fake, one great big, vast, optical illusion"?
Before the play begins, Man #1 (Joseph Huffman) enters carrying a tire and noticeably bearing an unseen weight on his shoulders. He's an ex-football jock from Big Ugly, Montana whose car has broken down. He is crossing the park in search of a repair shop. He works at a nuclear toxic waste site. He spars with Woman #1. Others jump on the easy judgmental band wagon. He's a "lazy good-for-nothing. I mean look at that look on his face." Thirty years later, the American pastime of criticizing others with little knowledge is now an art form practiced by Facebook ranters, quick-thumbed Tweeters and leaders of the free world.
Another woman denounces "Mr. Minder-of-Other-People's-Beeswax." Later she comments that "you can tell just by looking at her that she is a floozy, or homeless, or damaged goods..." The toxicity of the human race is the thread running through this rambling play. Surrealism and absurdity seem to be the intention but much of the performance is flat and lacking depth.
As Man #1, Joseph Huffman develops a fully fleshed out persona. His dejected all-American hangs onto the belief that "nobody but fools believe in anything but power, money, muscle and good old-fashioned American cheese." There are many witty lines and ripe targets splattered throughout Bad Penny. This production, however, is like watching an acting exercise of widely varying quality.
A retrospective of Mr. Wellman's work is being staged at the Flea, a company he co-founded. Five works are being presented. Later the same evening I sat down to watch Sincerity Forever which was originally dedicated to Senator Jesse Helms "for the fine job you are doing of destroying civil liberties in These States." If Bad Penny is the intellectually amusing but ultimately bland appetizer, Sincerity Forever is the juicy entree - medium rare, bloody, succulent and hilarious.
When this play opens, Judy asks "Molly, do you know why God created the world the way he did? so complicated I mean?" Both are wearing their KKK garb. Molly doesn't care that she knows nothing. "The most important thing is not what you know, but whether you're sincere or not." Seven sincere young people who are members of the Invisible Nation are skewered for their vapidity and ignorance. Directed by Dina Vovsi, the entire ensemble nails the perfect tone for this comedic tirade.
Mr. Wellman is not subtle when he satirizes bigoted white kids. Two young men lift their hoods to reveal inner thoughts, if you can actually call them thinkers. "I, too, may be as dumb as a post, and unclear about the multiplication table, the boundaries of more than half dozen states, and unable to repair my own toilet, but dammit, Hank, if the English language was good enough for Jesus H. Christ..." I laughed out loud frequently. Nothing I heard seemed remotely dated, sadly.
Two Furballs from the tribes of Belial and Abaddon throw in their two cents. Belial is the Hebrew and then later Christian personification of the devil. Abaddon is the realm of the dead. These characters are the punkish, gothic kids who are disgusted by these "smarmy goody-two-shoes" and their "chintzy, cheesy, boring mediocrity." The question lingers. What exactly is good and right? If god does exist, what would she think?
Thankfully we do not have to guess. Jesus H. Christ (Amber Jaunai) shows up sporadically in the form of an African American woman. She stands up, screams and condemns her misguided flock of hypocrites in a blistering monologue. In 1990, Mr. Wellman wrote this line for Jesus: "I got nothing to say to you, America." Both barrels, right between the eyes. The rage is palpable, effective and thrillingly theatrical. Would Jesus have any different view today about a land of unceasing gun violence, brown-skinned child abuse and abject derision of any moral code?
Not every moment in Sincerity Forever swings a sledge hammer. When the righteous Thor takes a pause, we see these misguided youth growing up worrying about dating and the meaning of life. That ordinariness is what makes Sincerity Forever so very real, if grotesquely exaggerated and lampooned for effect. So very real, so very funny, so very scary and so very disheartening.
I'm glad I saw both of Mac Wellman's works revived on the same evening and now. America is nothing if not a country overwhelmingly draped in (and hideously proud of) false sincerity. Find a bad penny and pick it up...
Mac Wellman: Perfect Catastrophes is a festival of five plays running through November 1st. Bad Penny and Sincerity Forever will be performed through October 7th and mostly on the same evening.