O Solo Mio

Even though it's my usual task to comment on the work of playwrights, directors, and performing artists, I must open this review with a barb directed toward a fellow critic. William A. Henry III recently wrote an impossibly ignorant paragraph in the February 14 issue of Time magazine. In discussing Eric Bogosian's new one-man show, Pounding Nails in the Floor with My Forehead, currently playing off-Broadway, he states:

"Although the explosion of one-person shows on New York City stages seems to belie it, there was a good reason the ancient Greeks introduced a second actor into the drama. The essence of theater is human interaction, not introspection. No amount of skill can give a monologue as much insight and texture as the best dialogue. Even at their best, solo acts are a triumph of economics over aesthetics."

I say baloney to that, Mr. Henry III. I suppose no solo actor ever produced drama. Or when Bogosian presents several different characters all played by himself, there is no insight and texture. What about Jane Wagner's The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe? In that remarkably dramatic piece, the lead actress -- originally Lily Tomlin -- plays a multitude of personalities interacting with each other directly, even though there is only one performer on stage.

In fact, some of the best and most exciting theater I have recently seen are one-person shows. Neither Tru nor Papa is introspective, nor are the works of Bogosian or John ("Mambo Mouth") Leguizamo. Spalding Gray and Wallace Shawn may get a bit self-indulgent at times, but for the most part they tell stories far more absorbing and dramatic than, for instance, gaudy musicals and sitcom plays such as Cats or Breaking Legs.

Multi-character plays are often saddled with contrived dialogue and action, mainly to get actors on and off the stage and to reveal exposition. Only the most brilliant playwrights do not exhibit some degree of artifice when scripting dialogue. The monologue, on the other hand, can flow freely and honestly, and more easily break the rules of dramatic form.

There is one drawback to the one-person show, however. It must be brilliantly written and exquisitely acted to succeed.

Unfortunately, the newest local offering in this category, Saudia Young's Sneaker Revolution, starts off with a fine idea but quickly deteriorates owing to mediocre writing and merely adequate acting. Currently playing in a wonderful cabaret venue -- the Ruby's bar area in the new Nick's restaurant -- the play features Young portraying twelve characters, male and female, young and old, white and black. However, she renders almost all of them the same. She makes only minor adjustments when she needs to make major ones; one gets the feeling that Young is not yet experienced or brave enough to go out on a limb and truly become different people inhabiting the same body.

Still, the premise is a lot of fun, and the piece is short and moves quickly. It is set in the near future when a U.S. President, resembling Clinton (complete with Arkansas drawl and jogging towel around his neck), announces that because of a labor crisis, no one under 21 will be eligible for work. At first riots ensue, especially in the ghetto areas, but gradually spiritual leaders come to the forefront and organize the mainly black youth into a peaceful march, which begins in New York and ends up at the "Homey Dome" in South Central Los Angeles. Instead of harking back to the days of Woodstock or marches on Washington, Young has chosen to create a cross-sampling of today's youth taking that same path of collective action for different reasons.

Whether she realizes it or not (and after an interview with Young, I believe she doesn't), her Generation X hippies are for the most part morons, and if there is anything wonderful about the play, this inadvertent touch is just where it lies. Samo, the narrator, operates an underground radio station from his Cadillac and says "yo" every six seconds. Homegirl is more interested in sneakers and a black Adonis named Shareef than in protest marches. Sister Samahadi, the youths' leader, is a ridiculously passive type with granny glasses, and Young Blood, a former gang member, has become mellow simply by smoking too much good dope.

Whether intentional or not, Young's cast of characters on this meandering march through America are believable: They are shallow, vain, clothes-conscious, and politically correct without knowing why. Sort of the same crowd I expect at this summer's upcoming Woodstock revival. They'll go up to Bethel wearing their best Reeboks and pretorn jeans, spend one day outdoors, then book a room at a nearby hotel. Order room service in the morning. No mud baths and Port-o-sans for them. This group, though, does not necessarily offer fertile ground for brilliant dialogue.

Some of the writing in Sneaker Revolution is cute, if not exactly witty. Divergent groups emerge during the course of the march, such as FBMs, which stands for "Fundamentally Backward Men." I could live without the SWPs, "Scary White People," since I'm still naive enough to believe that racism is racism no matter who's spouting it. But since most of the black characters are scripted as one-dimensional illiterates, I suppose everyone gets the shaft from authors Young and Kate McCamy (who also directed the show).

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