Northlight Theatre

It’s hard to know where Anthony Clarvoe’s sense of irony leaves off. In his entertaining though shallow play Pick Up Ax, receiving its midwest premiere in a sleek production at Northlight Theatre, the California playwright’s dialogue keenly and comically captures the sensibility of his two protagonists; but it’s not clear to what extent Clarvoe is choosing words that fit his characters and to what extent he’s expressing himself.

Pick Up Ax, a study of the collision between high-tech ideas and below-the-belt realities, is peppered with the jargon of several interfacing subcultures: the computer industry, science-fantasy freaks (references abound to Star Wars and Star Trek, to Lost in Space and The Lord of the Rings), recreational drug users (“I’m down to stems and seeds,” says a man who’s left with no professional options), rock and roll fans, and computer-game players. Like playwrights David Mamet, in Speed-the-Plow and Glengarry Glen Ross, Jerry Sterner, in Other People’s Money, and Sharon Evans, in Girls, Girls, Girls, Live on Stage, Totally Rude, Clarvoe is adept at using a specialized vocabulary to motor a universal theme, while also instructing the audience in that vocabulary. I knew, for instance, that “bogosity” means–to quote the “users guide” handily printed in Northlight’s program–“the degree to which something is bogus,” but I’d never heard the term “bogon” before (“a person who is bogus or says bogus things”).

But when Clarvoe says in a program note that when looking for a title he scrutinized his script for “the words and phrases that turn up the reverb,” one wonders where Clarvoe’s characters stop and Clarvoe himself begins. Certainly the limitations of those characters are the same limitations that prevent Pick Up Ax from being more than merely a diverting amusement, despite its aspirations to serious social criticism and ethical exploration. Like the 70s blues-rock and the fantasy-quest computer games that obsess the play’s heroes (the title is a command in one such game), Pick Up Ax puts a glossy new spin on old ideas.

Keith Rienzi and Brian Weiss, both in their middle 20s, are the founders of a young, startlingly successful software company. Keith is the flaky idea man, a computer-game genius barely able to function in the real world; like Tom Hanks in the movie Big, he’s a little boy in a grown-up body, and his unpredictable creativity is at once his company’s biggest asset and its most threatening drawback. Brian is the manager, both of the business and of Keith; having turned Keith’s initial brainstorms into profit-making products, Brian now must compete in a cutthroat industry, and he’s not doing well.

Enter Mick Palomar, a bogon if ever there was one. Citing a background in heavy industry and admitting ignorance of the brave new world of computers, Mick nonetheless insinuates himself into Brian and Keith’s confidence. (The first names, of course, are references to the original members of the Rolling Stones, a reflection of the similar dynamics in this small group of boy-men.) Armed with a business degree in one pocket and a switchblade in the other, Mick claims his main skill is negotiating; his tactics (which he outlines in a very funny spoof of a corporate presentation) are “break legs,” “sabotage,” “bribery,” and “kill him.” (These tactics, and the dangerous temper he sometimes displays, are undoubtedly the cause of the prison sentence Mick has previously served–a bit of personal history suggested, long before it’s confirmed: when Mick misunderstands the term “end-user,” he thinks that he’s been recognized as a sometime homosexual punk.) Mick is the ax that Brian and Keith pick up to defend their company–from underhanded competitors and recalcitrant suppliers, then from intrusive boards of directors (this guy is every nonprofit theater director’s dream!). Finally, predictably, this human computer virus turns on Brian and Keith in an effort to take over the company.

Mick’s evil schemes are thwarted, in an unsurprising twist ending that’s almost as unconvincing as it is sentimental. Unlike those plays cited above–not to mention George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, whose influence pervades all these works–Pick Up Ax forgoes the crust of truth in favor of the cream-filled Twinkie of wish fulfillment. After the show is over there’s plenty to laugh about, but not much to think about.

Director Richard E.T. White and his crack cast and design team meet the play on its own terms. The production is a pulsing sound and light show, a video game for the stage. Linda Buchanan’s flippant set, with its red-and-green color scheme and neutral walls, is a receptive area for Walter Myers’s trippy visual projections and Michael S. Philippi’s snappy lights, all buoyed by the 1970s rock sound track playfully chosen and skillfully packaged by Joe Cerqua. Renee Liepins’s costumes, an array of suburban-mall-cruiser chic, are a special delight.

The three-man cast pack plenty of energy into their roles, though they can’t finally overcome the script’s superficiality. Kevin Crowley has the showiest role, as the mentally hyperactive Keith; casually somersaulting onto a couch or manically playing air guitar, he captures both the goofy, valley-boyish charm and microchip-on-the-shoulder sullenness of this emotionally arrested adolescent. Jim Leaming is the gentle, bewildered Brian, gradually realizing that his illusions are unraveling.

Best of all is B.J. Jones as slick Mick. With his ready but forced smile, his studied swagger, and his slightly faded pretty-boy looks, Jones makes the crafty but not very smart Mick as much victim as victimizer in a hierarchical power system that, at its rotten root, stays the same generation after generation, whether the weapons are axes or computer keyboards.