In Platos Cave

Photo by Dita Marina ObertThe great stage director Harold Clurman said that when he walked into a theater and saw a musical instrument on stage, he knew he was going to have a good time. And that's what you get in the Chance Theater's entertaining production of Christopher Durang's fractured fairy tale of a musical, A History of the American Film.Pianist Michael Walker supplies the live underscoring to this freewheeling excursion through the major genres of the American film. Unless your mother was squashed by a falling piano, it's hard not to get caught up in the bouncy, infectious accompaniment and the spirited lunacy of director Darryl B. Hovis and his highly committed cast.

Blame Durang for the fact that you get very little but fun from this show. Durang was perhaps America's most popular playwright in the 1980s, but he never seemed to outlive the decade that elevated irony to its lowest form. His plays are still commonly produced but most, including this one, sadly illustrate his shallowness; he may have yearned for the status of Swift, but he was a bright, talented smart-ass whose ideas never transcended Mad Magazine.

Take this stage treatment of America's love affair with the screen. Rather than saying anything new about American film, Durang is content to riff on a few of the most popular genres: Chaplin's loveable tramp, gangster films of the 1930s, wartime romance epics.

Durang is a master of the obvious, glancing at but never reflecting on Hollywood mythmaking and what that says about Americans. He creates a stable of recurring characters who play similar roles in each of his genre skewerings. There's Loretta (the perfectly cast Kristel Koehler), the naive foundling abandoned in Chaplin's era who embodies Hollywood's love affair with the love story. There's Jimmy (the very capable Jeremy Golden), who, whether playing a bloodthirsty gangster or an aspiring politician, embodies Hollywood's obsession with the self-made man. (At one point, Jimmy, playing a thug gangster, remarks that of course he can accomplish whatever someone asks him to: “Ain't I an American?”) One of Durang's most effective points of irony is the character of Hank (Patrick Rowley), the good-looking Joe who embodies the decent, salt-of-the-earth quality of Gary Cooper's Mr. Deeds and Henry Fonda's Tom Joad. He may be a victim of the system, but goshdarn it, he still believes in the system, even when uttering, “We are the people” as he slices and dices patrons in a movie theater.

And these are all funny points. But Durang never asks why: Why does a nation like America still turn to the movies for its myths and its meaning? What does that say about this country and its people? And, even more interesting, why do those screen myths—the most popular and prevailing mode of culture in this nation, both in terms of money and public discourse—have so little to do with what is really going on?

Somewhere between escapism and idealism is Hollywood's America: glossing over the bitter labor battles of the '30s with Chaplin's Modern Times, spinning the bone-deep hardship of the Great Depression into the Capra-esque paean of It's a Wonderful Life, camouflaging Cold War conservatism with James Dean bad-boy pix. It's like a casino with the windows blackened and the clocks removed: the industry never lets anything peek out from behind the happy ending—Woodstock might be everyone's favorite 1968 memory, but Nixon and the Republican Party won the elections. Big.

In short, the history of all hitherto existing filmic history is the history of illusions—and how the majority of Americans eat those illusions up, breathlessly looking at distortions of themselves as heroes, villains, crooks, lovers whatever, only to exit the movie theater and go back to what they've been doing since the country started: the business of living.

And in his final image, that's what Durang—at last—seems to say. At play's end, Jimmy tries to inspire his fellow movie patrons by creating a golem-like amalgam that will embody all the best traits of characters in American films: we'll be as enthusiastically cheery as Mickey Rooney, but strong like John Wayne; we'll be as tough as Brando, but decent like Jimmy Stewart. But after Jimmy finishes his call to myth, he turns and finds them all deliriously laughing at a brain-dead comedy onstage. Who knew that Plato's Cave would offer popcorn?


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