Language Are Dead

Literary experts will tell you there's a fine line between clich and archetype, but after watching two plays on two big stages, I got an anxious feeling that it's a mile-wide chasm. On the Jump, which is receiving its world premiere at South Coast Repertory, is a reconstitution of Cinderella, complete with romantic, rags-to-riches trappings. Gunmetal Blues at the Laguna Playhouse is a tongue-in-barrel spoof of the American detective genre, complete with private dicks and sad-eyed blondes.

Each scores points in its genre, but each is undermined by serious flaws, the most deadly of which is their reliance on the idiom of movies and TV. Each play reflects the enormous—and in no way positive—influence of film and television on storytelling in the far more sophisticated, if sadly overmatched, medium of live theater. It's possible to leave these theaters believing that Americans are losing—or have already lost—the ability to think in anything but pictures, and that language, if not dead, is certainly broken.

On the Jump is clearly indebted to cinematic storytelling, and no wonder: playwright John Glore based the play on a screenplay written by his wife, Amy Dunkleberger. Director Mark Rucker supplies a thoroughly cinematic, visually fluid staging. It's possible to say that as something other than a compliment: as critic John Simon once remarked, it's not short scenes, multiple locations and quick cuts that make a play cinematic; if it were, Shakespeare and his contemporaries would have been "proleptic cineasts"—Simonspeak for doing cinema before cinema was conceived. No, what makes a play truly cinematic is a lack of dramatic substance, of letting appearances do the work, of reliance on visual gimmicks over dialogue.

All of those flaws mar On the Jump. Let's just say the clichs reproduce themselves like rabbits. The basic plot: jilted bride ponders suicide and is taken in by lonely, wealthy family. The characters include a wise, salt-of-the-earth butler; a bum with a heart of gold; and a wisecracking roommate. The locations inlcude a seedy hotel room, a bridge and a 24-hour diner. The basic dialogue: "Don't call me late for dinner"; "There's more than one fish in the sea"; "I feel like a heel." Even the play's most interesting aspect—reaching beyond the grave to save those you love—feels like we've seen it before, probably in Ghost.

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On the Jump deals so often in such clichd currency that I can't help but think it's all planned. Glore, who daylights as SCR's literary manager, is far too intelligent and well-versed in theater not to have some reason for such shameless hackneyisms. But I can't figure it out. So if this play has a critical failing, it's that it's impossible to discover a sensible ulterior motive in the apparently tired, filmic feel of the work.

Some of that is Rucker's responsibility. For a play that bills itself as a romantic fairy tale, there isn't a whole lot of fairy tale in the staging. It's as if the play is on Prozac. Highs and lows are conspicuously absent; darker shades that would have made it feel more mythical and less like a sitcom are also absent. For a play that includes such potent ideas as suicide, intellectual thievery and pathological lying, the action unfolds perfunctorily, the characters seemingly content to carry on in a cottony haze.

Of course, there is another possibility: Glore planned it this way to suggest that there is no genuine dramatic substance or depth because . . . well, because there is no genuine dramatic substance or depth in life. But that's what we call Friends and movies starring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant. Theater, by the very fact that it is not a mass medium (like film or TV) that requires audiences in the millions, can dare to offer material that has substance, complexity, depth and poetry. The fact that On the Jump seems content to offer so very little is a weighty disappointment.

In Gunmetal Blues, there is much less with which to be disappointed. Any show that seeks to turn the Mickey Spillane/ Raymond Chandler detective story into a satirical musical isn't exactly aiming for the loftiest heights. But what gives this show (created by Scott Wentworth, Craig Bohmler and Marion Adler) its peculiar ballast is that it's loaded with winks to the audience and self-referential bits; the audience seldom forgets it is watching a play. The result is that we're in on the gag, willing accomplices ready to accept the nonsensical unfolding of events. Thanks to Jules Aaron's spirited staging, there is a sense of both homage and send-up.

Andrew Barnicle, who daylights as the Laguna Playhouse's artistic director, is a convincing dick, contributing a stellar performance as Sam Galahad, the hard-drinking private eye with the broken heart and shattered dreams. Barnicle has a strong voice, an even stronger sense of comic timing and great stage presence. Jeffrey Rockwell's ivory-tinkling lounge lizard Buddy Toupee is the perfect narrator/comic foil, and Tracy Lore does solid work in a variety of stock roles.

The story is as needlessly complicated and ultimately irrelevant as any pulp fiction. Wentworth's libretto is more distinctive for its great one-liners, most of which revolve around such detective clichs as "Her perfume lingered in the air like a wasted prayer."

But the show bombs in the music department. The cast's fine efforts notwithstanding, the melodies are unmemorable and the attempts to tug on the audience's heartstrings (such as in the ballad "Jenny") are tailor-made piss breaks.

Were it not for the Hallmark Card music, Gunmetal Blues might stand as a piece of legitimate television and film criticism. It might also stand as a model of what theater can sometimes be—pop culture's judge, not its imitator.

Probably the model will go unnoticed. As theater continues to struggle with its relevance and reaches out to younger audiences through more visually oriented spectacle, one can't help thinking that the theater community will sabotage what makes its medium so singular: its ability to rely on stimuli—on poetry and big ideas—other than visual. To employ a clich, aping film and TV may help theater win the occasional skirmish (Rent, anyone?), but such a strategy is unlikely to win the war.

On the Jump at South Coast Repertory's Mainstage, 655 Town Center Dr., (714) 708-5500. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Through June 27. $28-$43; Gunmetal Blues at Laguna Playhouse's Moulton Theater, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., (949) 497-ARTS. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. Through June 20. $31-$38.

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