Theatre of the Reconstruction

As Lenny Bruce and Lear’s fool both showed, comedy thrives on telling the truth. Unfortunately, for the past ten years at least, truth–or at least the demand for it–has been in very short supply. The result is that comedy (especially mainstream, SNL-type comedy and its local franchise, Second City) has become tame, toothless, and tiresome. No one has wanted to hear the truth, and no comedians have wanted to risk blowing a chance to make big bucks playing comic spokesmodel for a beer company or a health club or a potato-chip company by accidentally letting the real world seep into their material.

But now junk bonds have proved more junk than bond, overleveraged companies are reeling under the weight of (would you believe it!) too much debt, and the Reagan recovery looks more and more like a lavish party to which most of us weren’t invited but that we’ll be paying for for the rest of our lives. So it’s not surprising that comedy has taken a bitter turn. Jay Leno gets in shots at Bush no one would have dared to take at Reagan. And Roseanne and The Simpsons reveal the meaner aspects of life in debt-ridden America, the ones no one wanted to see five years ago.

However, on the fringes, among the still-undiscovered comics (who have little to lose) and the tiny theaters (which have even less at stake), this bitter, alienated comedy is coming to its fullest flower. Take Steve Heller and Dick Sparks’s Big Deal, for instance. This vicious but often funny musical parody of Cinderella, set in deepest, darkest corporate America, gives full vent to a seething anger and resentment that would have been considered inappropriate in Reagan’s America.

Cinderella’s awful family is transposed to a corporate environment. Here the ugliest sides of their personalities–Snivella’s chronic whining, Weasella’s constant conniving, even the evil stepmother’s grandiosity–become positive assets at Megatex, where the motto is “What’s good for Megatex is good for Megatex.”

Even Sinderella (as she’s called in Big Deal is co-opted by Megatex’s spiritually bankrupt materialism. In that moment when the heroine gets to sing her heart out and tell us what she wants more than anything else, Sinderella expresses her absolute distaste for the job: “Fuck work / I’ve got better things to do / Fuck work / I don’t wanna be like you.” Such honesty is enough to take your breath away. And when she gets a chance to settle a few scores, thanks to her fairy godmother, Sinderella turns out to be the coldest corporate warrior of all.

In less capable hands, Big Deal could have been a disaster. Certainly all of the elements for a god-awful show are here. And the performers are at best uneven, and at worst, amateurish. Only Michele Gregory, last seen by this reviewer as the hapless masochistic mom in Christopher Durang’s The Nature and Purpose of the Universe, turns in a consistently fine and funny performance as the equally hapless and masochistic Sinderella. The story wanders into triviality. Some of the gags are as cheap as you can get–the show boasts not one, not two, but three men in drag, including one playing (you guessed it) the fairy godmother. And the level of satire–well, it’s never particularly intelligent, incisive, or informed. In fact, the show’s coauthors and codirectors, Steve Heller and Dick Sparks, don’t seem to be interested in a critique of business that runs much deeper than a whine: my coworkers are selfish, my boss thinks he’s fuckin’ king, etc.

Still, Heller and Sparks’s real and honest outrage at greed among America’s organization men and women completely transforms both the material and the cast’s mediocre performance. Big Deal could easily have been just another excruciating evening of toothless comic masturbation (just how many parodies of Cinderella can one culture take?). Instead it dares to tackle a few meaningful issues and manages in the process to be fairly pleasant and even, at times, wonderful.

Which makes me look forward to Steve Heller and Dick Sparks’s next effort. As the S and L crisis continues to widen and the economy slows to a trickle, we may need a lot more of Heller and Sparks’s brand of clear-eyed comedy–to keep us from lapsing into 80s-style narcosis and denial.