If Raven Theatre’s known for anything at all, it’s known for amiable productions of plays in what might be called the American Winsome mode: Shows like Lanford Wilson’s Talley’s Folly, wherein a couple of endearing misfits find love; or Preston Jones’s A Texas Trilogy, wherein various endearing hicks search for certainty; or Mary Chase’s Harvey–about a six-foot bunny rabbit, also endearing. The Raven people may take an occasional field trip to the land of American Bleak, to visit Edward Albee, say, or Tennessee Williams. But they generally carry a box lunch of winsomeness along with them when they do. This is a professional company with a community-theater sense of style. The very best I’ve seen from them is merely pleasant. Perky. Winsome.
So I took it as an interesting move on their part when they chose to do American Notes, by Len Jenkin.
Maybe you saw Jenkin’s lurid Gogol at Blind Parrot Productions, back in 1987. Or maybe you made the trek to Theatre X in Milwaukee last month, for the premiere of his gleefully vicious Poor Folk’s Pleasure. If you did, you know Jenkin’s not the winsome type. His narratives are all broken up into jagged little shards; his characters tend toward the sick, the cynical, the twisted, and the ugly. He’s got a quirky, half-morbid/half-vulgar sense of the mystic, and his notion of human nature is not what you’d call positive: Gogol wallows in decadence and deceit, while Poor Folk’s Pleasure celebrates all that’s stunted, brain-dead, and malign in America’s lumpen life-style.
Written within a year or two of Poor Folk’s Pleasure and structured similarly, American Notes looked to me like a major departure for Raven. That’s evidently not how it looked to Raven, though. Director Michael Menendian tries to make Jenkin’s script play like the lost sequel to Our Town. There’s not a bit of stylistic or conceptual difference between this and anything else these folks have done.
It makes sense, in a way. Seen from a certain, squinty point of view, American Notes could be understood as nothing more than a charmingly odd portrait of life in small-town America: Mayberry with aliens. We see a lonely drifter passing the long night hours talking to a cute night clerk at the local motel. We see a former beauty waiting for a call from her last-chance beau. We see that beau, a free-lancer for the Flying Saucer News, interviewing a whacked-out professor who claims to be in contact with invisible people from the “place of broken shells.” We see a couple of no-talents singing cover versions of Sonny and Cher songs. We see a carnival barker trying to hawk his dead alligator as “Bonecrusher, the Monster of the Nile.” And through it all, we see Chuckles and the Mayor: a pair of half-crazy vagrant seers who follow events along with us, giving them a little push at times, very much in the manner of the Stage Manager from Our Town.
Yes, it’s possible to consider all this charmingly odd. Maybe even the passage where Sonny offers to sell Cher to the drifter–maybe even that can be considered charmingly odd.
Only American Notes isn’t charmingly odd. It’s bitter and strange; heavy with irony and a despairing sort of condescension. Not quite as out-and-out mean as Poor Folk’s Pleasure–but mean just the same in its vision of America as a sort of psychic flea market, lousy with bad deals. Everybody’s selling something that’s either not theirs or not there in this play. And everybody’s buying, too.
This is a vision Menendian and company either don’t know about or can’t express. Menendian ignores the mercantile aspect and treats Jenkin’s characters as your basic collection of wounded souls looking for a little comfort in an unfeeling world. Which is not only wrongheaded but dull. Denied their nastier possibilities, their subversive undertones, the passages involving the drifter and the motel clerk come across sounding like highlights from The Rainmaker; and poor Chuckles simply loses his reason for being–despite superior work in the role by Dan Shea.
Honest to God, seeing Menendian do Jenkin is like seeing Frank Capra direct Night of the Living Dead. Just not a happy match.
The only element of the production that comes close to communicating something of the play’s potential menace is the pairing of Denise La Grassa and Steve Rose as the Sonny and Cher wannabes, Linda and Tim. Him with his potbelly, his Evel Knievel jumpsuit, and his greasy arro-gance; her with her bland, almost egoless indifference. They’ve got a taste of the evil Jenkin put into American Notes. The rest is all winsome, lose some.