White Noise Productions

at Victory Gardens Studio Theater

Like Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, John Doe, the protagonist of Ad-Nauseam, suffers from a terrible psychological problem: he can’t make up his mind. He wants to be a writer, but he can’t decide what to write about. So he fills up page after page with unfinished poetry.

In this respect Doe has a lot in common with his creator, writer-director Ned Crowley. Given two acts and two hours of stage time, he can’t seem to decide whether he’s writing a character-driven comedy about a sad-sack writer, or lampooning the ever-deserving ad industry, or creating a dark, surrealistic satire about the way television has subverted the democratic process. An inspired writer could do all three, but Ad-Nauseam looks for all the world like the sort of comedy someone writes when he has nothing to say and two hours to say it in. Crowley desperately flits from idea to idea, style to style, never lighting on any one long enough to fully explore it.

At first Ad-Nauseam looks like a comedy along the lines of Cardiff Giant’s Love Me or Kevin Crowley’s Earth on a Platter, in which strong performers strut their comic stuff playing strong characters. Certainly Crowley has assembled a cast marvelously capable of such star turns. But then he blows it by having them play insultingly shallow and cartoonish characters. Maggie Carney, who was a scream as the clown Trinculo in The Tempest, is reduced to playing a variation on the very tiresome Jewish-mother stereotype. Mara Casey–who has proved capable of deep, subtle work in shows like Griffin Theatre’s Independence–is forced to play one note over and over, that of the manipulative bitch.

The most misused actor in the show, however, has to be Kevin Crowley. A gifted comic actor, Crowley is equally at home in serious roles, as evidenced by his fine work last season as the confused journalist in Northlight’s production of The Rhino’s Policeman. But as John Doe he’s never allowed to fully exercise his comic or dramatic talents. The one-dimensional Doe is supposedly the play’s main character, but his story isn’t interesting enough to sustain the play. So he’s pushed aside whenever a wackier character enters the story–which happens every five minutes or so.

These wacky characters are a great disappointment–Ned Crowley clearly hasn’t the patience or the gift for creating compelling, multidimensional people. Casey’s archly evil waitress isn’t funny for a moment. Neither is Carney’s Jewish mother/ad executive.

Later Crowley leaps into flat-out absurdity, shoving onstage a tribe of surreal advertising creatures: a beer-guzzling slug, a talking loaf of bread, a deodorant-pushing armpit, a dictatorial toilet-bowl cleaner named Rimshot. These creatures are funny for a while–particularly Jeff Johnson’s pot-bellied slug and Jim O’Heir’s white knight of the toilet–but they overstay their welcome. Rimshot, believe it or not, becomes president of the United States in the show’s ham-fisted second act. I know Crowley’s trying to make the point that in our TV-besotted age TV pitchmen make the most popular presidents, but after eight years of Reagan (and four years of Reagan Lite) the joke doesn’t seem that funny or insightful.

Then again, nothing in this show seems particularly insightful. Crowley’s lampoon of the advertising industry has been done a thousand times before, and better, by the likes of Stan Freberg, Bob Newhart, and Firesign Theatre. How many times do we have to hear that ad people are shameless? Or that they come up with ever stranger ideas to sell their product?

Crowley doesn’t even have anything new to say about the creative process. John Doe’s inability to choose seems less like the cause of his writer’s block than like a symptom of some deeper problem that’s never explored. As for Crowley’s political humor, Aaron Freeman has nothing to worry about.