at Annoyance Theatre



at Annoyance Theatre

There was something fresh, daring, and very appealing about Mick Napier’s ultra-low-budget musical satire Coed Prison Sluts when it opened in 1989. It was profane but good-natured, self-consciously rough and unpolished. But after five years of Napier and his cohorts at the Annoyance Theatre, not to mention a host of imitators, concocting dozens of rough, low-budget, improv-based, taboo-breaking comedies with glib, shocking titles (Your Butt, That Darned Antichrist, Ayn Rand Gives Me a Boner) and plots that essentially go nowhere, the genre feels more than a little played out.

Which may explain why Napier’s most recent shows have been a marked departure. In his last show, for example, Dumb Ass Leaves the Carnival, he abandoned the inspired silliness of his earlier work in favor of a rich, resonant, heartfelt allegory about show business and the destructive allure of money. His current show, with the rather infantile title Poo Poo Le Arse, is another radical departure–it’s surreal and absurdist.

In Napier’s preshow speech he evokes the spirit of dadaist Tristan Tzara and madman Antonin Artaud. Unfortunately, it becomes clear once this wildly uneven show begins that Napier and company don’t know much about Tzara or Artaud; if they did they wouldn’t have mentioned two such different artists–a puckish master of irony and a literal-minded visionary–in the same sentence. The show that unfolds has less in common with either Tzara’s dadaist experiments (he was fond of composing poems by pulling words out of a hat) or Artaud’s much-touted Theater of Cruelty than with Rod Sterling’s more obvious, Pirandellian absurdism. In fact, the premise of the show–average Joe is mysteriously transported from a restaurant in 1994 to an insane asylum filled with flamboyantly eccentric inmates in the 1940s–could have been lifted from a Twilight Zone episode.

There are flashes of marvelous comedy throughout the show–spontaneous musical scenes, unexpected dance numbers, superb, eccentric conversations–but its premise inhibits its surrealist potential. Sure we get to spend a lot of the play getting to know the various bizarre inmates–theres a man who thinks he’s Adolf Hitler, a woman missing an arm who thinks she’s missing a leg. But confining the action of the play to a nuthouse provides a disappointingly easy explanation for every odd thin that happens: oh, those crazy people say and do the craziest things! No matter how insane things become in the asylum–and they do get rather strange–they never reach the freewheeling, mind-bending, fever-dream pitch of Tzara’s theatrical nightmare The Gas Heart, because Poo Poo’s naturalistic hospital setting grounds the show too much in reality.

Finally, the show’s conceit, that asylums are in and of themselves places of entertaining oddity, has been so well explored in works as different as Marat/Sade, The Day Room, The Ruling Class, and King of Hearts that many of the supposedly most insane moments in the show–for example, Tom Keevers’s repeated assertions that he’s not a man but a stick–come off as rather mundane. And predictable. And more than a little naive.

For all its faults, this trippy, fast-paced hour-long show manages to be fairly entertaining. It’s just hard not to wish that a company capable of such inspired moments as the duet between Mark Sutton and Jodi Lennon (“Look at her hair, it’s right up on her head; look at her eyes, they both look the same way”) could maintain this level of absurdist brilliance.

You need only check out Dan Wachtel’s Someone Left Their Dog in the Dryer, performed on Wednesdays at the Annoyance, to see why Napier feels compelled to experiment with the form and pace of his shows. Created very much in the image of Prison Sluts, Dog in the Dryer concerns the bizarre residents of an apartment building and their various strange day-to-day routines.

Over the course of this show we meet, among others, an overly perky housewife (Mary Wachtel), an eccentric immigrant from an unnamed foreign country (Nancy Giangrasse), a very depressed unemployed man (Matt Walsh) who never changes out of his pajamas–all of whom are looking forward to the annual “building picnic.” These characters are flatter than your average Annoyance creations, yet they’re realized with the sort of committed intensity we’ve come to expect from the company. Beth Cahill in particular can do no wrong as an obsessive-compulsive house cleaner.

The show clearly aspires to the comic brilliance of Prison Sluts, but most of the time it achieves only a rather wry observation of apartment life. And even this mildly comic tone is endangered by the incredible skimpiness of the story and the lethargic pace–all the scenes run way too long. I can’t for the life of me figure out what makes Wachtel et al think an audience wants to wait an hour and a half to find out what happens at a picnic.