at the Annoyance Theatre


Avenue Theatre

The night I saw Your Butt some people from NBC were somewhere in the building taping interviews with Metraform members for yet another story about the folks who created The Real Live Brady Bunch. Just before the show began that night’s house manager walked over to a young birdlike woman who looked strikingly like 60s supermodel Jean Shrimpton–complete with crushed-velvet dress and funky Mad Hatter hat–and asked if she wanted to talk “on camera” to NBC since she was “under 30.”

Apparently the networks think Metraform’s big attraction is that it speaks in some way to the hopes and fears of what some have dubbed generation X and others refer to as the 20-something crowd. If this is true, and Your Butt is any indication of what’s slithering through the collective unconscious of the under-30 crowd, then generation X is much more cynical and pessimistic than I thought. Certainly Your Butt is a much bleaker comedy than I thought I’d see at the Annoyance, where dark comedies such as Coed Prison Sluts, Manson: The Musical, and That Darned Antichrist are the norm, not the exception.

In many ways this play more closely resembles Metraform’s first cult hit, Coed Prison Sluts, than any subsequent Metraform show. It’s essentially plotless, depending entirely on the characters to maintain the audience’s interest. It’s filled with music written by Faith Soloway, who also wrote the tunes for Coed Prison Sluts. And most of the action is confined to a single room, in this case a biker bar/roadhouse, which the playbill describes as “not unlike [the one in] that Swayze flick.”

But the resigned hopelessness, meaningless cruelty, and barely stifled rage that percolates through this show couldn’t be less like the joyful, inspired silliness of Coed Prison Sluts. Every relationship in this ten-character play is sick. Annette and Teddy constantly fight. Mickey cares more about his bike than about Cassie. Maggie, who runs the roadhouse, loves money far more than she does her husband, the increasingly senile Pops. And we’re never given any hope that things will get better for them. In fact, much of the humor in the show depends on these fools and schmucks never improving their lot in life. Annette will stay with Teddy, even though she realizes halfway through the show that everyone treats her well except him. Pops will get more senile. Even the play’s tacked-on “happy ending” is so obviously phony and parodic that it underscores the hopelessness of the characters’ lives.

Which is not to say Your Butt is artless. In many ways it is much richer, less fragmented, much more complete and philosophically coherent than previous Metraform efforts. Soloway’s songs–which run the gamut from the silly (“You can reach up to the stars / You can reach even higher”) to the profane (“See Maggie Maloney / She’s a shriveled old cunt”) to the very profane–are tightly nestled in the structure of the show, unlike Coed Prison Sluts, in which many of her songs had the same relation to the overall story as TV commercials do to what they interrupt.

In addition the Metraform actors no longer seem like a gang of kids putting on a show. In fact, several of them, most notably Mark Sutton and Susan Messing, have become such polished performers that they could hold their own against the best serious actors in non-Equity theater. Sutton so perfectly captures the seething anger of the malevolent Balloon Boy that he doesn’t have to say a word to convey his contempt for everyone and everything.

Still, no amount of fine acting can disguise the fact that we are being invited to laugh at the characters, not with them. I’m not faulting the show for being bleak–how could I when unemployment is running close to 10 percent and even the usual Pollyannas sound pessimistic about the economy? Still, I can’t get over the nagging feeling that this show is a harbinger of darker days to come.

In contrast, the Avenue Theatre’s production of D.H. Robinson’s tiresome two-act Murder the Playwright doesn’t have much to say about anything, though it illustrates that there will always be bad comedies and theaters willing to produce them. It repeats the threadbare formula for mystery spoofs: introduce us to a set of eccentric characters, give them supposedly funny names (Bernice Babble, Lawrence Huff, Max Frowner), kill one of them off, and then allow a crack sleuth to discover which of the suspects, all of whom had a reason to kill the victim, perpetrated the deed.

Here the story is set in a small theater company devoted exclusively to the nurturing of new plays and playwrights. We meet the various opinionated playwrights associated with the theater, all of whom love their own work, hate everyone else’s, and have reason to resent the autocratic artistic director, Prissy Playgood. Naturally, Playgood is murdered before the end of the first act, and most of the extremely talky second act is devoted to uncovering her killer. Not one, not two, but three parodic sleuths–Ellery Clean, Inspector Trousseau, and, ugh, Charlie Sham–have been brought into the case, which hardly adds to this humorless comedy.

Happily, the acting is considerably better than the script–though it could hardly be much worse. Dennis Carl delivers a finely tuned performance as the theater’s jack-of-all- trades, Max Frowner. Laura Goltz’s klutzy physical comedy as Inspector Trousseau is genuinely funny, which made me wish the playwright had written a few funny lines for her. Of course, when you begin with such an overly mined premise as this, you’ve got to expect a colorless, flavorless, and witless show.