White-Trash Bash

Coward gets the brave updating he needed

I wouldn't say I grew up in a white-trash neighborhood, but you could sure smell it from my back yard. I remember cutting the heads off chickens just to watch them flop around like, well, chickens with their heads cut off. I remember Ma knocking rabbits over the head with a lead pipe, skinning them clean and storing the meat in the freezer. I remember Pa raising worms beneath the rabbits and seriously thinking about chinchillas. I knew kids who really lived in trailer parks, didn't bathe for weeks at a time, and sported ugly bruises and black eyes because they didn't pick up the dog shit good enough. My parents actually moved back to Missouri. So maybe I'm a tad more sensitive than most to the plight of white-trash America, the latest in a rich, not-so-proud lineage of reviled American groups. From Jerry Springer and Jeff Foxworthy to Married . . . With Children and a couple of local theater productions, white trash is the latest demographic to get tied to the whipping post of popular culture. It may have something to do with Bill Clinton, whose greatest crime in the eyes of many otherwise liberal Americans is that he eats at McDonald's and displays questionable taste in women. Or maybe it's something a touch deeper and more unsettling: the shared wisdom that in America, no one truly warrants derision so much as the poor. When we're not holding them up as better (because of their suffering) than the rich (Henry Fonda in Grapes of Wrath) or as vehicles of our own redemption (John Travolta in A Civil Action), we enjoy making fun of white trash because it assures us that we are better than them. 'Cuz people who live in trailer parks are poor, and we hate poor people. 'Cuz people who trade their food stamps for liquor are poor, and we hate poor people who are drunks. 'Cuz people who sleep with their sisters and then talk about it on national TV are-generally speaking -poor and stupid, and we hate poor, stupid people because they're walking, talking proof that a lot of people in the greatest nation on Earth just can't get a leg up. That subliminal loathing of the poor is partly at work in two shows on local stages: White Trash Privit Lives, an inbred bastardization of Noel Coward's Private Lives, at the Hunger Artists Theater and A Tuna Christmas, a sequel to the successful Greater Tuna, which is playing at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts. Of the two, White Trash Privit Lives is the trashiest, funniest and most mean-spirited. This freewheeling adaptation preserves the plot, characters and much of the dialogue of Coward's original, but it definitely serves its own master. Still, the story is identical: a formerly married couple who survived a dangerously passionate union and divorce find they're honeymooning with their new spouses at the same seaside hotel. Unable to resist the call of their loins, the two follow their most base urges, madly running off with each other and opening up a familiar can of slugs. But instead of exotic resorts and opulent flats, we have trailer parks in Laughlin, Nevada, and Paris, Texas. Instead of Amanda and Elliot and stiff English accents, it's Manda and Ely and Texas drawls. Instead of champagne and caviar, it's Old Granddad and Snowballs. Instead of lacerating wit and the occasional polite scuffle, it's hair pullin', gut punchin', screamin' and yellin'. In short, it's like Jerry Springer (not so coincidentally, throughout the performance, an offstage TV is continually tuned to Jerry Springer). What's most interesting about this show-beyond the slightly disturbing fact that everyone from director (and OC Weekly contributor) Kelly Flynn to "fight coordinator" Susy Davis seems to be having such a great time being so trashy-is the fiery, honest connection between the two principals. It would have been very, very easy to play the wildly retooled material for laughs and sleaze. There's plenty of both here, but there's also a real bond between Mark Coyan's Ely (think Beavis meets Sam Shepard's lonesome cowboy) and Kimberly M. Fisher's black-fishnet-and-overalls-clad Manda. As much as they cuss, feud and bitch-slap each other, the passion onstage is as undeniable as it is visceral. That doesn't make this portrayal of white-trash love and lust less ugly-or vicious. But there is a method to the badness, one Flynn outlines in his program notes. The white-trash setting was chosen in order to explore how our notions of class affect our perceptions. And the exploration, for me at any rate, discovered new territory in a playwright who deserves respect for his craftsmanship and wit but whose plays are insufferably catty and formulaic. The elegance of Coward's characters generally keeps the audience comfortably distant from the chaos and conflict onstage. In White Trash Privit Lives, the characters' juiced-up sloppiness is thrust in our faces, bringing to light an inherent cruelty that's embedded but rarely revealed in Coward's script. Sir Noel is exposed here less as a refined playboy with a naughty streak than a borderline sadist. Clocking in a few notches below White Trash Privit Lives on the cruelty barometer is A Tuna Christmas, the two-man tour de force that features a range of backasswards characters in Tuna, the third-smallest town in Texas. This is a gimmick play from top to bottom: creators Joe Sears and Jaston Williams, the two extraordinarily talented men who wrote the show (along with Ed Howard) and star in this tour, play all 22 of the characters. These range from heads of the local Klan chapter and earthy radio DJs to scorned housewives, UFO-spotting hicks, sissy thee-ater directors from the bright lights of Waco, and members of the self-appointed local censorship group, the Smut Snatchers. The plot is anorexic, the characters archetypal (for readers of the Weekly World News) and the jokes mildly amusing at best. But Sears and Williams deliver the material in such idiosyncratic, wholly likeable ways that it makes even the most tired material entertaining. And you can't help but appreciate the chutzpah of the quick-change artistry involved. But while there are some genuine moments of inspired satire (the chain-smoking survivalist gun-shop owner played by Williams is best), for the most part, A Tuna Christmas never aspires to much beyond sitcom-level hick-poking. Some part of our contemporary glee with ripping white-trash America lies in a kind of economic racism, a sub genus of which is urban prejudice. In the case of White Trash Privit Lives and A Tuna Christmas, all of the characters hail from dusty Texas towns. What's fascinating is that not so long ago, these same towns and people would have been hailed as icons of rugged American individualism, the hardy pioneers and cowboys who carved a great, proud nation from untamed country. Today, with that frontier a thing of Westerns and history books, those same hardy country folk-or at least their descendants-are perceived as inbred losers and bumpkins. And that may be the final current animating White Trash bashing: as American myths of individualism and self-sufficiency collapse on themselves, as a culture slowly withers, we find ourselves, in some measure, enraged that we have nothing at hand to replace it with-except, of course, for our common hatred and weird envy of white trash.White Trash Privit Lives at Hunger Artists Theater, 204 E. 4th St., Santa Ana, (714) 547-9100. Thurs.-Sat., 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 7:30 p.m. $10-$12; A Tuna Christmas at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada, (714) 994-6150. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. $34.

 
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