The Kids Are All Right

The Chance Theater, Orange County's newest theatrical venue, is located in a remarkably pristine Anaheim Hills industrial park. Inside the theater, you're struck by enthusiasm, the brightly smiling, freshly scrubbed faces of those so happy to greet you and seat you, followed by a bundle of incandescent energy who races down the stairs and exuberantly pitches the obligatory company spiel—heywelcometothetheatergladyoucouldmakeityou'regoingtolove theshowsignthemailinglistthanksforsupportinglocalartists thanksagainenjoy!!!!!!

The Chance Theater's second play comes courtesy of the in-house company Spare Change Productions, a group that defines itself as "twentysomethings with a desire to learn the art of theater"; these kids are quite well-adjusted. Written by Dave Eisenstark and Fred Burke, the company's Wednesday Night Save-the-World Society is an earnest little comedy about the need to look beyond anger, cynicism and finger pointing, to redress the imbalances in our own imperfect little natures before we dare attempt to correct society at large. The revolution has been miniaturized.

The problem is that anger, cynicism and finger pointing are usually necessary ingredients for great plays, or even halfway good ones. A play that suggests the futility of rage, bitterness and accusation—and their attendant actions—had better be very funny or extraordinarily well-written. This one is neither.

Dee (Veronica Johnson) runs a listing in the Weekly Conundrum inviting people who want to fix society to her home for a weekly meeting. She gets (surprise!) a motley group: a foul-mouthed, oversexed writer named Keller (Martin Williams); black-clad depressive Goth Delphine (Amy Bomquist); an anal-retentive housewife from Brentwood (Joan Land); earnest environmentalist/student Perry (David Araujo); and crackpot musical-theater fan Burt (Aubrey Hartman). There are also two spies in the group (Dan Lookabill and Esther Frederickson), competing journalists out to document the losers who would attend such a meeting. (The only thing more desperate than a reporter so hard up for a story like this is a pair of playwrights so hard up for a plot that they would actually turn the idea into the dynamo that drives their play.) It soon becomes clear (surprise!) that the group members aren't as interested in saving the world as they are in patching up the holes in their own lives. They all want love, and in some way or another (surprise!), most get it.

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This is a far-less-interesting idea than combustible personalities placed in a room and given free rein to discuss society's problems. But it's what the playwrights settled for, opting for rehashed platitudes and tame dick jokes instead of taking advantage of the golden opportunity to really say something. Burke and Eisenstark can write believable dialogue, but there's a difference between writing dialogue that sounds true and dialogue that is the truth. What passes as insight are such gems as men are afraid of nature (tell that to John Muir); America is run by a wealthy elite (news flash!); it was far better to be a rebel in the '60s because there were no nose rings or health clubs (yeah, but what about the Archies?).

Since nobody's saying anything particularly interesting, we need characters who are, at the very least, engaging. Instead, we're given shallow clichs who can reinvent themselves in a heartbeat—like Keller, the resident prick, who condemns people as scum-sucking assholes but actually (surprise!) has a heart of gold. In the evening's only actual surprise, the ensemble does a fairly solid job of making the thinly drawn characters breathe a bit, but the most accomplished actor would find it difficult to turn these turnips into asparagus (poor writing must be contagious). Director Oanh X. Nguyen does a serviceable job of getting this play from Point A to Point B, but he's unable to inject any real energy into the lax proceedings. Characters sit around and belittle one another, run to the bathroom every two minutes when stressed, lurch around in the bushes outside the house in Three's Company-style sexual coupling, and basically act like this meeting is the last place they want to be. Yet they keep coming back, week after dreary week, and we're supposed to buy the notion that at play's end, this meaningless weekly ritual has turned all these lives around.

Ultimately, what's missing from the play are the emotions that these characters say they're trying so hard to overcome. If it's unhealthy to deny our true feelings in real life, it's deadly in the theater. Good plays are about emotions painful to face, feelings difficult to control. The assumption here is that people are basically good and everything will take care of itself—if we just find someone to love. Call it Theater of the Warm Fuzzies. Revolutions have been waged in the theater against such cheap sentiment; the only saving grace is that the most fervent revolutionary could only yawn at what passes for action in The Wednesday Night Save-the-World Society.

In stark contrast, there is little cheap sentiment in Marsha Norman's 'Night Mother. There are plenty of tears, pathos and wringing of hands, but all for good reason. Jessie is going to kill herself. And she's told her mother. An hour before she's going to do it. Marsha Norman won a Pulitzer Prize for this play, and it's easy to see why. Though not perfect (both women still seem strangely vague at play's end), it's a gripping, disturbing work that dares postulate a notion that only Dr. Jack Kevorkian could really love: in some instances, people who kill themselves are not crazy, depressed or weak. They're just tired, and they want out.

Which is what I wanted about halfway through this production at the Empire Theater. Great choice for a play, but poor execution. This is a two-character play, and both actresses must rigorously squeeze into the crawlspaces of their characters' souls. It's the spaces between the words and the lines that carry much of the weight in 'Night Mother. Unfortunately, Cathy Petz's Jessie is too young, too vibrant and talks way too fast for me to feel the cumulative weight of the 35 or 40 years of failed promise and shattered dreams her character is supposed to have endured. Joyce Eriksen's Thelma is very good, but Jessie's lack of levels subverts any connection. Director Todd Kulcyk's brisk pacing runs over and through some of the more intense moments. I appreciate his decision not to turn this into a melodramatic soup hysterically seasoned with the whines and sobs of two women in pain. But there's more of a play here than Kulcyk's pedal-to-the-metal pacing allows the audience to experience.

As flawed as this production is, 'Night Motheris a wonderful play, one that deserves to be seen. The irony is that I saw it two days before I attended The Wednesday Night Save-the-World Society. Guess which show has a house full of hootin' and hollerin' people? Guess which show had four people in the house? Fuck saving the world on Wednesday nights; if you care about saving local theater on any night, get thee to the Empire and see how plays are really written.

The Wednesday Night Save-the-World Society at Chance Theater, 5576 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills, (714) 777-3033. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m. Through June 20. $13-$15; 'Night Mother at Empire Theater, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 547-4688. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. Through June 13. $10-$12.

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