Ever seen the original 1953 Invaders FromMars? Scared the shit out of me as a kid. A boy wakes up at night, looks out a bedroom window and sees something crash in a field near his home. Everyone thinks he's crying wolf, of course. Led by a malevolent squid-like alien head in a giant bubble, the monsters from outer space begin to conquer Earth. People start disappearing into sinkholes, returning as emotionally distant humanoid automatons.
Like horror, sci-fi feeds off national anxiety and is always at its best when it has some subtext. Like the far-better Invasion of the Body Snatchers a few years later, Invaders' subliminal warning was that something insidious was infiltrating American consciousness, taking us unawares. The hysteria around communism and the potential for nuclear war bred a host of flying-saucer and giant-creature films throughout the '50s.
A bevy of film clips from those movies—Invaders, as well as other bargain-basement shockers—greet audiences entering the Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse. As the lights dim, what follows onstage is playwright and director Michael Dale Brown's affectionate ode to those stinkers.
We're in familiar territory from the first scene: A group of scientists and Army personnel applaud an atom-bomb test, mouth a ponderous line or two about whether man should tamper with Mother Nature, then shrug it off and go for a drink.
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After the explosion, Tom Morrow (Ed McBride) begins hearing voices. Following them to an abandoned mine near the test site, Morrow is attacked by a giant tentacle and quickly begins mutating, growing into something resembling the Amazing Colossal Man, stomping through the town, kicking over cars and swatting away jet fighters midair.
While there are several problems with the show that overwhelm its brilliance, the Playhouse must be applauded for taking risks and trying to rise above standard community-theater programming. Brown's play is ambitious, his theater-cheese-on-a-budget special effects inspired, and the clever Ed Wood aspects of the script are attacked with a gusto that's often very, very funny.
The most egregious of the problems, though, is that it's just a loving re-creation of a campy, stupid sci-fi plot and nothing more. We can Netflix the original movies and appreciate their poor filmmaking techniques any time we want, but if we're going to drop a $20 on a play version, it better offer us a comment or two on today's zeitgeist or be damned hilarious, and Earthlings Beware! isn't really either.
Illustrating the maxim that playwrights should never direct their own plays, Brown would have served his better if he'd stuck with the effects in the show. Not only are his set changes in need of better coordination—the audience watches for long stretches as half a dozen people bump into one another in the dark—but also the cast is in need of someone who has better directing chops than he does.
Stilted acting and creaky dialogue may be par for the genre, but it's pretty clear from the opening scene that the stage isn't full of good actors playing bad ones—it's just bad acting. The cast is such a wild mix of the brilliant (the manic McBride, the spot-on Ron Grigsby and schizophrenic Laura Lindahl), the adequate and the lousy that despite the troupe's enthusiastic performances, viewing the show can be akin to watching a heart monitor: It's up, it's down, it stops and gets jolted back to life, and then it's up and down again.
In the end, it's because Brown's script is too faithful to its source material that it fails. He clearly loves the inspiration for the genre—Bradbury, Heinlein and Amazing Stories magazine all get a mention—but he's too in love with the formula. The best parodies don't come from love; they come from a little haughty disdain. While Brown and his cast embrace the camp (and I'd certainly see whatever they come up with next), their comic bite is dulled without a little snarkiness.
Earthlings Beware! at Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse, 661 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa, (949) 650-5369; www.CostaMesaPlayhouse.org . Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through Aug. 26. $18-$20.
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