at Urbus Orbis


at the Playwrights’ Center

Peter Handler’s dark one-act comedy Meet the President begins with the question “What was that?” and ends with the frightened cry “What’s going on? What’s happening here?” Between these two sets of questions, Handler sketches a portrait of an America only slightly more scary and paranoid than the one we see on the evening news: riots and electrical blackouts are a daily occurrence and crime is so rampant that every home is guarded by electronic alarms and video cameras.

Into this hostile universe Handler tosses a typical pampered American sitcom family (wacky mom, emasculated dad, and smart-mouthed kid) and shows us how utterly isolated they are, and how incapable of dealing with the ugly world on the other side of their barred windows. Dad (B.T. Powell) always seems to be on the verge of an anxiety attack, while Mom (Adele Robbins) hides in the bathroom firing off angry letters to the president.

Such a premise is old hat, having been mined pretty thoroughly by Edward Albee (American Dream, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) and Jules Feiffer (Little Murders) in the 60s. Like Mommy and Daddy in American Dream or George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Jim Smith and Jane Jones-Smith in Meet the President lead lives of noisy desperation–made even louder by the fact that Powell, a founding member of New Crime Productions (which this show is “produced in association with”), hasn’t entirely learned how to tone down his bombastic commedia dell’arte delivery style for Urbus Orbis’s tiny sweatbox of a performance area.

Happily, Handler, as playwright and director, is after more here than just another facile critique of America’s fearful upper middle class. The critique is certainly there–in Powell’s hysterical clenched grin, and in Jean de St. Aubin’s sly satiric set, which wittily combines chic interior design with decidedly unchic theft-prevention devices: tables are chained in place, the refrigerator doubles as a safe, all artwork is tightly screwed and bracketed to the wall.

But Handler is also out to satirize the political structure. Meet the President mocks the current administration’s uninspired leadership–Handler’s President Pip shares Mr. Bush’s love for press events that allow him “to appear close to the people without actually touching them”–and exposes the extent to which our physical and spiritual needs are not met by our morally bankrupt leaders. “Help us,” Jane pleads with the president at one point in the play. “Touch us. Save us.”

Ironically, Handler reveals, it’s the president, a virtual prisoner of his secret-service agents, who needs the most help. Even before the president enters the story, we hear rumors of a possible coup in Washington, D.C. Then, halfway through the play, the president shows up on Jim and Jane’s doorstep traumatized and bleeding from dozens of unseen wounds, his face hidden behind a mask (which remains on through the whole play).

Indulging in a fit of Pinteresque vagueness, Handler never gets around to explaining how or why the president has been injured. Nor is it entirely clear why Jane, against the wishes of her husband, who doesn’t want to get involved, attempts to nurse the president back to health. In a long scene that strongly echoes one in Pinter’s A Slight Ache, Jane reveals her innermost feelings to the dazed and confused president, who just sits listening mutely.

“Are you really running things?” Jane asks the president near the end of the play. Handler wisely leaves the question unanswered.

In her 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp’,” Susan Sontag warns against works that try to be campy, noting that “the pure examples of Camp are unintentional,” created by artists in dead earnest. Therein lies the difference, she argues, between those wonderful Warner Brothers’ musicals of the 30s, with their eye-boggling dance numbers and their awkward, unbelievable plots, and parodic musicals like Dames at Sea or Coed Prison Sluts, which by Sontag’s definition don’t have the power of pure camp because they’re conscious imitations.

This doesn’t mean that a work of conscious camp can’t be entertaining and funny. Witness the work of New York playwright Charles Busch (Psycho Beach Party). Sadly, this is not the case with Eric Spitz-Nagel’s current late-night show at the Playwrights’ Center. This show tries to create the sort of vile musical comedy Mick Napier et al at the Annoyance Theatre are justly famous for. Even the title of Spitz-Nagel’s show–I Love You So Much I’m Going to Tie You up With Chains and Beat You With Warm Squash–sounds like Annoyance.

Unfortunately, having seen the first two episodes of this three-episode show (the bill changes every two weeks), I can report that Spitz-Nagel fails to re-create the style, substance, or spirit of Napier’s work. The Annoyance’s work is wittily, charmingly vile; Spitz-Nagel’s is merely plain old vile.

Like the episodic late-night show the Playwrights’ Center produced last fall, The Cafe With No Name, I Love You So Much concerns the various adventures of a group of people who frequent a local unnamed cafe. This time, however, their adventures are considerably more perverse. One patron is emotionally involved with a blow-up doll. Another has murdered his girlfriend and drags her rotting corpse around with him wherever he goes. A third character is a basketball player, black in the first episode and white in the second, who has been diagnosed with every venereal disease known to humankind and expects to die at any moment. In such company, the prostitute who loves to tie men up and whip them seems rather tame.

For all its perversity, little of Spitz-Nagel’s comedy actually works–in part because the writing is so weak and in part because as a director Spitz-Nagel allows his actors to engage in the kind of broad acting style that would kill the comedy in a Marx Brothers routine. Of the nine actors in this show, only Karen Arndt (as a lovesick waitress), Jennifer Sayan (as the dominatrix prostitute), and Rob Harless (as an excessively brutal cop) show any flair for comedy at all. But even they go down in flames.