Go South, Young Ham

After that, I traveled across town to see an exercise in tedium written and performed by George Murphy with the pretentious title of Electra or the Birds of Death and the Mongoloid Troubadour. Never one to judge a play by its name, I gave the piece an hour but exited midway through, since 60 minutes turned out to be all the torture I could endure. Murphy offered a dull, rambling monologue about his tragic hometown in Massachusetts where children blow up their families with the gun powder from toy trains, planes crash in rivers, girls fall under the wheels of trucks -- and all this during two weeks of one summer. Yet in spite of all the gory details, you never lost the sensation that you were listening to one of those incredibly boring people tell you a pointless story in infinite detail. If this happens in a bar, you can always get up and leave. After Murphy's twentieth digression about lightning storms and birds, I decided the same rules should hold for the theater.

Not everything was a new work. A contemporary one worth reviving with the right actor, Eric Bogosian's Sex, Drugs, Rock 'n' Roll, was brilliantly performed by 1974 Obie Award-winner, Frank Speiser, who wrote the off-Broadway hit The World of Lenny Bruce. Flipping swiftly from one to another of Bogosian's obnoxious but pathetic characters, Speiser believably created two emotionally damaged bag men, an egomaniacal rock star, a Donald Trump-like yuppie scum and a hopelessly dumb Brooklyn slob.

Yes, there was real excellence at this festival in both writing and acting.
Yet the most interesting piece was not the best constructed but the most daring and original. West Coast playwright Bill Svanoe (best known for writing the song "Walk Right In" for his group, the Rooftop Singers) and his wife, director Joan Darling (a four-time Emmy nominee, for such TV shows as Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show) mounted a truly experimental work called Trader Jack and the Stinger. Loosely based on the true experience of writer Norman Mailer when he unfortunately got writer/killer Jack Henry Abbott (The Belly of the Beast) sprung from jail -- Abbott subsequently killed again -- this script concerns a has-been bright light of literature, Jack Smith, now relegated to teaching the craft of writing. Jack discovers a raw talent in rapist-murderer Chip, also known as the Stinger, arranges for parole and brings Chip to live with him and his estranged and brittle wife Pat. The Stinger needs Jack to make him rich and famous; Jack intends to use the Stinger to thrust him back into the limelight.

In this bizarre blend of drama and black comedy, two other unique characters show up at the Smith house: Chip's prison pen pal, the foul-mouthed blonde Sheya, and a nightmarish TV tabloid hostess, Janice. Spouting witty dialogue and never committing a trite act, the characters are nevertheless completely artificial and affected, but intentionally so; they are perfect representations of today's phony, violent world filled with intellectual cynics and fame-seekers.

Svanoe subtly builds a nicely dramatic plot, peopled with forceful, intelligent male and female characters, who bond out of mutual respect. "Stinger's supposed to fuck my brains out," says Sheya. "That shouldn't take long," responds Pat.

Although the mixture of suspense, comedy, drama, and absurdity didn't always work, there's something brilliant about Trader Jack, which probably needs a few more polishes to really shine. Svanoe has experimented with drama in the right way by mirroring his times, rather than dishing out incomprehensible avant-garde trash. His characters have long tossed away innocence, romance, and civility. They use their brains and tongues to dominate others, feed their egos, and obtain what they want. Because of this, Trader Jack reminded me more of the current social landscape than any other play I've seen recently. The production also benefitted from a highly skilled cast of professional L.A. actors, particularly showcasing the talents of the cool Janice Lynde as Pat and the ultra-perky Carra Roberson as Sheya.

Festival organizers Nancy Holtkamp and Charles Munroe deserve a standing ovation for bringing such a complex event to fruition. One key reason for their success is their use of 61 skilled volunteer dramaturgs based throughout the country to review 1100 submitted works. The producers didn't always manage to present quality, but they did take a gamble that demonstrated true dedication to the art of theater and in many cases, provided excellent entertainment. Perhaps some producers from Dade and Broward County should contemplate a visit to Key West to see Charles and Nancy. Then they might find out how to properly execute a new play festival instead of making rare, feeble attempts to mount one.

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