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Wipe That Smile

Victory Gardens Studio Theater

I don’t presume to know what effect Kay Osborne hoped her play Wipe That Smile would have on its audience. But since this story of a Jamaican family’s descent into poverty and crime is billed as a tragedy, I doubt she assumed it would leave them rolling in the aisles. Yet that’s what Jaye Stewart’s over-the-top, ham-bone, virtually slapstick production does.

Wipe That Smile, an occasionally compelling, workmanlike exploration of the allure crime holds for the world’s underclass, follows an increasingly predictable Victory Gardens formula. Whether it’s transporting the Romeo and Juliet story to the West Indies (as in the splendid Eden), grafting south-side back-alley lingo onto the well-worn Cain and Abel story (as in the not-so-splendid Freefall), or placing hackneyed polemical debates about civil rights in an isolated forest cabin (as in the not-at-all-splendid Ends), Victory Gardens seems to be getting attached to the ploy of setting predictable drama in unpredictable locales.

Here Trench Town, a Kingston ghetto, is the backdrop, and Osborne is exploring the subjects of the three above dramas. The plot concerns the deeply religious Putus, who loses her job as a domestic to drug lord Mr. Palmer and his floozy companion, Miss Scarlett, and then struggles to feed her children and steer her unemployed husband, Phanso, away from the temptations offered by the flashy drug dealer Prettywalks.

Whatever merit there is in addressing the plight of the unemployed, the difficulty of maintaining faith in a seemingly unjust world, or the tragedies that come with the fast life of drugs and violence, Osborne doesn’t have enough original material to justify a three-act drama, the tragic outcome of which is telegraphed in act one. Moreover, the rhetoric–“You cannot be free until you have pride in yourself,” “If the Lord is good, why all the starving?”–has been heard countless times before (and not only in Eden and Ends).

Phanso’s debates with his Rastafarian father, Dread, about religion and Marcus Garvey recall the treatment of the same subjects in both Ends and Eden. And the charismatic, moralizing Prettywalks, who asserts that he’s only cashing in on a universal need by selling drugs, is quite reminiscent of the dealer in Charles Smith’s Freefall, who maintained that his activities were his way of achieving the American dream. Which isn’t to say that Osborne is thieving ideas–only that she isn’t a trailblazer.

The best thing about Osborne’s drama is the collection of characters, whose quirks are the play’s only original elements. The incomparably brave and faithful Putus and her arrogant, stoop-to-no-man husband are intriguing creations, and they provide the opportunity for strong performances that could transcend the script. Stewart has five highly talented actors, but he has elicited unbelievably grating, almost comical portrayals from them. Encouraging or allowing his actors to convert dramatic utterances into melodramatic emoting, Stewart creates a wildly inappropriate laugh riot. The devilish tempter Prettywalks inspires more laughs than shivers as the gifted Christian Payton struts around the stage with a rap star’s mannerisms, calling to mind the forgotten Jamaican member of Run-D.M.C. An uncharacteristically shallow Jaqueline Fleming plays the princessy Miss Scarlett for campy laughs in the first act, rendering inconsequential her dramatic moments in act two. W. Allen Taylor’s prophetic Rasta man Dread is given a goofy reading; on opening night his heart ailments moved the audience to tears of laughter.

Even Velma Austin and Kenn Head as Putus and Phanso begin the play so shrilly that there’s no emotional plane left for them to discover at the dramatic conclusion. The bloody finale, which could conceivably be deeply affecting, plays like a scene out of the Theater of the Absurd.

The cast and script deserved better. Perhaps the director should have taken the play’s title to heart.