The Ugly Truth

Photo by Dave BartonSomewhere out there is a great theater piece waiting to be written that incorporates the lefty scrawlings of Noam Chomsky, Neil Postman, Ben Bagdikian or Howard Zinn. With Truth & Beauty, New York playwright Ping Chong makes a nice attempt, but the problem is his schizoid inability to pick a cohesive message and stick to it.

More performance art than play, Truth & Beauty is a series of brief vignettes (finely acted by Rude Guerrilla regulars Jay Fraley and Andrew Nienaber) that touch on everything from consumerism to religion to guns to terrorism to television to family relationships to corporations to the news media to third-world garment workers. It's a wild, herky-jerky, multimedia mlange, flowing from one quickie scene to another, and that's the trouble: Chong doesn't give his audience enough space to really wrap their heads around his ideas.

Watching the piece is almost like watching TV as somebody else annoyingly channel hops with the remote. It begins with a man picking up nails off the floor and putting them into a metal bowl, cleaning up as if a pipe bomb has exploded (this rather neatly comes full circle by the end). We then move to two men engrossed in their morning shaving ritual, rattling off various scenes of titillation they've apparently memorized from TV commercials. Behind them, words and phrases flash by on video screens and monitors that seem to have been lifted straight from an advertising exec's playbook (if not from artists Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer, who have been using manipulated advertising-slogan verbiage in their works for years): "Some have the pain, some have the champagne"; "Image is nothing. Thirst is everything"; "Time goes better with Coke."

From there, we encounter tension-wracked father-son phone calls; a police interrogation of a teenager who has blown away 17 classmates; two men taking turns holding guns on one another, one begging for his life, their intensity melting away as they morph into little boys at play; a father-son fishing trip, with AKs used as poles; several driving skits, one with a harried "family man" who has the body of a girl he raped and killed in his trunk; a pair of business execs yakking about the "beauty" of low-cost prisoner labor (not prisoners, actually, but "trapped consumers"); a Salvadoran factory worker who must fill her daily quota of Disney shirts or be fired; a man who rants about God and belief systems while pointing a gun at a rabbi's head; and a fake ad for the U.S. Army School of the Americas, the real-life Georgia assassin academy, where you can learn "skills that will help you in the corporate world."

Much of Truth & Beauty, especially its more political layers, plays out as if Chong suddenly came across a secret history of the world—or accidentally tuned into KPFK—and the knowledge was such a whopping revelation that he felt the need to get as much agit-info out there as he could. As scripted, though, with its quick cuts, Truth & Beauty just doesn't make very good theater (does Chong think the soundbite approach is the only way to hold our attention? If he does, he's got as much contempt for the public as the ad execs he's mocking do).

It also feels redundant in a time when far-left thinking has finally broached the mainstream, with hit books like Michael Moore's Stupid White Men, Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation and Noam Chomsky's 9-11. Really, Chong would've done us better by just handing out a reading list.

Truth & Beauty at the Empire Theater, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 547-4688. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m.; also Thurs., Sept. 26, 8 p.m. Through Sept. 29. $12-$15.


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