If you can get a rheumy-eyed baby boomer to shut up about Social Security or their goddamn mutual funds for just a second, ask them about JFK. Then watch the tears well up in their eyes and hear the sob catch in their throat. That's when our innocence died, they'll say. That's when we were forced to grow up and confront the harsh reality of life.
Now slap them—hard and with much vigor. And then drag their rapidly aging asses to the Empire Theater and make them watch Brook Stowe's fascinating, if flawed, new play, October.
Stowe (who, for the record, has written about theater for this very publication) has crafted a play that leans more toward bebop and the Beats than traditional storytelling. It's a surreal, time- and space-bending trip though a 1959 nightmare of small-time crooks, military experimentation, Communist assassins, Benzedrine trips, technology run amok, Catholic iconography, mass-media overload and the Brooklyn Dodgers. And that's just the first act.
As the play begins, a young couple, Betty and Buzz, are on a dark, desert highway, fleeing the scene of a crime. Somewhere along the way, Betty is somehow transported to the disintegrating desert home of an older couple, Lloyd and Lois, located, apparently, on a nuclear test site. Lois sounds as if she walked out of Leave It to Beaver. Lloyd sounds like a tortured guinea pig who has something called a transceiver buried in his head that picks up radio transmissions from the future. After wandering in the desert for seven days, Buzz somehow finds Betty, Lloyd and Lois, and all hell erupts.
All this, and the always-present, ominous specter of young Lee Harvey Oswald.
Its emphasis on style and form over plot and content makes October fascinating and frustrating. At its best, it's a highly ingenious and starkly poetic blend of sci-fi, disaffected youth and American myth turned on its head—kind of an X-Files meets Sam Shepard by way of Don DeLillo. In its weakest moments, it's a confusing mess—kind of an X-Files meets Sam Shepard by way of Don DeLillo.
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Still, for an audience member willing to engage with the play, October does raise some compelling ideas. The play's central question seems simple: Just how good were the good old days? Those baby boomers who like wandering in a nostalgic haze claim that before those three shots on that November morning in 1963, America was optimistic and vibrant, poised to follow their young and vital president into a New Frontier filled with promise and glory. In October, Stowe doesn't seem to toe the boomer-party line. An out-of-control military, drug-addled punks and the mass hysteria boiling beneath the apparently placid surface of the middle class were all signals that society was ready to blow up in protests over Vietnam and in Watts and Altamont. In October, Lee Harvey Oswald isn't a psychopathic anomaly on the fringe of American society; he is a product of that society—just as Charles Manson would claim a little further down the road.
Then again, that's just my interpretation. There's so much going on in such a short time frame (about 80 minutes) that it's difficult to get your bearings. But where the content of Stowe's play is difficult to digest, his style is like a deep snort of glue. From the jazz-inflected dialogue of the apocalyptic Neal Cassady-like Buzz (an excellent Gavin Starr Kendall—when he slows his diction enough to be understood) to its sudden shifts in tone and location, the play has the rhythm and organized chaos of a bebop improvisation, which director Kit McKay handles with flair.
But ultimately, October is consumed by its own noise. While I'm honest enough to admit that many of the elements flew over my head, I'm also just enough of a prick to suggest to Stowe that focusing more on what he's trying to say as opposed to how he's saying it might make October intellectually satisfying as well as a stimulating ride. Then again, that might compromise the play's experimental edge. Final verdict: blow, baby, blow.
October at the Empire Theater, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 547-4688. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. Through Feb. 4. $15; students and seniors, $12