Monsanto's poisonous fumes wreaking havoc on the environment. Anti-IRS, global-conspiracy theorists meeting in clandestine patriot groups. The simmering anger of the white working class, underemployed and overlooked in the country their people built.
Sounds like anywhere in America 2013, but it's actually part of the backdrop in two one-act plays written more than 25 years ago by Howard Korder: Fun and Nobody. First produced in 1987, the loosely connected pieces are precursors to the sweeping works that Korder (who now writes for Boardwalk Empire) subsequently created, Search and Destroy and The Hollow Lands, both brutal indictments of the American Dream as told through a series of wealth-obsessed, morally vacuous characters. The characters are smaller in these one-acts, their concerns more parochial. But the same sense of people adrift in a world with no safe place flows throughout each—as does seething frustration, confusion and anger. Again, just like America 2013.
First up is Fun. It's the slighter of the two, mainly because it follows the events in a day and night of two 15-year-old boys, Denny (Adam Poynter) and Casper (Forrest Orta). There's nothing particularly intriguing about either. By every indication, they're average, lower-middle-class, white teenagers in the mid-1980s. They dabble in alcohol and harder stuff, but they're still just kids, condemned to hang out in malls and atop bridges over freeways, from which they hurl obscenities at the trash-spewing occupants of the cars below. While Casper at least frets about the future—whether to join the army or go to a trade school—Denny is all about the moment. And he despises every one of those moments. His fuck-this attitude is obviously a self-defense mechanism, but with it is a percolating rage that makes him interesting to watch. Or at least it should. Both actors try too hard to act as though they are teenagers, whether it's high-pitched voices or bouncing around as if excited puppies. Some of that would be fine, but they're just too up for the most part, which prevents the jagged edges, particularly of Denny, from making much of a bite. Director Jeffrey Kieviet needed to find a way to lower the treble of his cast and increase the bass.
Fun and Nobody at STAGEStheatre, 400 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, (714) 525-4484; www.stagesoc.org. Sat.-Sun., 5 p.m. Through May 25. $16-$18.
Nobody is the gem of the two plays. Now it's Denny's father, Carl (a splendid Rick Kopps), who is the center of attention in a series of short scenes that chart his trajectory from his firing at a well-paid factory job to his mental unraveling. The sense of one man pushed to a breaking point is reminiscent of the 1993 film Falling Down, except there is nothing anti-heroic about Carl. As the play's title suggests, he's a nobody, someone who, when confronted with slings and arrows, turns to the bottle, get-rich-quick schemes, Bewitched and the lunatic fringe. But nothing works—even a sexual tryst with a friend of his wife's is unfulfilling.
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Along the way, we meet a parade of eccentric characters, from Carl's prickish boss (Michael LaForte), who tells him being "retrenched" isn't terrible, but rather an opportunity for personal growth, to his Mexican-bashing friend (Rob Downs) who tells him the work ethic isn't part of their culture and they're happy not having jobs. But the most interesting minor characters are Carl's wife (Pam Paulson), who doesn't understand the rapid deterioration of her husband, and Walter (Dan Merket), a crackpot conspiracy theorist whom Carl meets in a bar. In Korder's most prescient concoction, Walter tells Carl that Hitler faked the Holocaust due to his being a pawn of the "Zionist-Banker Conspiracy." When the piece was written, talk of turning major American cities into death camps would get you blank stares; today, you'd get a million fucking hits on YouTube.
Some could hear Walter's ranting and think, "Wow, if some guy writing about this 25 years ago knew it, then it's further evidence it's really happening, right?" Maybe. But the two scenes in which Walter appears aren't in this play because Korder is tearing the veil off some sinister conspiracy. The first time we meet Walter, immediately after Carl is fired, Carl reacts as though he's any reasonable human being—he gets out of the bar as quickly as possible. The second time, near the play's end, he and his comrades are having a meeting, and Carl is there by choice. By this point, Carl's fragile psyche is evident. He's desperate, confused, looking for something, anything, to make sense. And this small cabal of patriots is merely a modern version of snake-oil salesmen, playing on the fear and insecurities of people who feel, as does Carl, that they are just nobodies, but, by God, at least they know what's really going on!
Enter: a rifle.
If there is any truth to the adage that an artist's main responsibility is to hold up a mirror to society, then the image reflected in the fractured glass of these 25-year-old plays is that our current paranoia and hostility to one another isn't a reaction. It's a culture.