It's a good thing Ben Elton wrote Popcorn in 1998. That gave him 97 years of bad plays to prevent his from being called Worst Play of the Century.
Rude Guerrilla calls Popcorn a "pitch-black" comedy, but the play's not nearly twisted, satirical or chilling enough to be black, and it's about as funny as a Papal bull. It's a hackneyed mess that seems to want to say something interesting about America's obsession with violence and celebrity, but instead comes off feeling like something Oliver Stone scribbled one night while jacked up on blow and Hennessy and directing Natural Born Killers.
Main character Bruce Delamitri is a director of horrifically violent and sexually charged movies. He inexplicably wins an Academy Award for best direction of a film being hyped by the media as the reason a white-trash couple—"The Mall Murderers"—has embarked on a shooting spree in America's malls.
Played by Vince Campbell (evincing as much urgency as the guy behind the window at your local DMV), Delamitri figures the award has absolved him of responsibility for the murder spree. He plans on taking out his newfound respect on the body of a Playboy centerfold (a suitably sultry Erika Tai) he picks up at an Oscar party. Unbeknownst to Delamitri, the murderers (a convincingly brutal and fucked-up Ryan Harris and an equally convincing Jami McCoy, who comes off like Tonya Harding on a speed binge) have broken into his Hollywood mansion and plan to hold him hostage in order to prove their point to America: someone has to take responsibility for their killing spree, even if they won't.
There's much overwrought violence, a few sex scenes and some muted stabs at Hollywood vanity. But mostly Popcorn is just a bunch of gabbing about artistic integrity, personal responsibility and our collective obsession with violence. It's hard to remember—1998 was so long ago—but it's possible these themes were more original then. There's nothing in Popcorn that any number of plays or films—from Bowling for Columbine to The Laramie Project—haven't covered more powerfully and incisively.
Popcornproves this: the only thing worse than getting murdered by a vicious killer is having to hear people talk about it.
It's tempting to think Elton's play is just one big goof. According to the program, he's a British standup comedian who adapted his 1996 novel Popcorn for this play. Unless you're Robin Williams or Martin Short, "standup comic" means "funny," right? But director Jay Fraley can't seem to decide whether Popcornis a serious examination of pop culture and American violence or a two-hour satire. The truth, most likely, is that it's a little of both, but this production fails to adequately cover either and comes off as empty as the soulless, money-grubbing, attention-seeking whores and self-pronounced victims who inhabit it.
Elton's point, if there is one, is lost in the unfocused production. Maybe it has something to do with the notion that in a society in which everyone is a victim and is so eager to point fingers at something else—the media, parents, chemical imbalances, the Santa Ana Water District—for one's problems, it's only natural that killers prowl the kiosks and Subways of middle America.
Whatever. A far grimmer truth is that there's just a meanness in this world.
And there's also some really, really poor writing.
Popcorn by Rude Guerrilla at the Empire Theater, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 547-4688. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. (No show Easter Sunday.) Through April 18. $12-$15.
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