Science Affliction

That creaky adage about writing A 10 percent inspiration, 90 percent perspiration A should be heeded carefully by would-be authors. Students eagerly approach writing instructors with what they believe is the key to any novel, play, or short story: THE IDEA. Surely, once they know what they want to say and what will happen in the plot the rest of the job's a cinch! Right?

Not exactly. The idea is not even half as important as the execution. Nothing completely new emerged from under the sun for many centuries. Most "brainstorms" turn out to be rehashes of the same basic mythology, as the scholar Joseph Campbell ably proved in his ground-breaking book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Psychology forefather Carl Jung similarly hypothesized that mankind as a unit was born with certain universal symbols, conflicts, heroes, villains, et cetera, which take shape as similar stories, whether written by a Costa Rican widow or a high school principal from Harlem or a poet from Nepal.

So the idea doesn't have to be mountain-moving. It's the way you tell the tale that counts. For instance, the yarn of an elderly fisherman battling nature hardly sounds like unique or even catchy material, but in the hands of Ernest Hemingway The Old Man and the Sea became a real page-turner. A middle-age married couple constantly engaged in bickering and other forms of emotional torture seems a dreary topic for the stage, but not when Edward Albee turned the situation into Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Again, the execution, that darned perspiration, separated the true writers from typists with clever concepts they cannot bring to fruition.

In Peter Shaffer's wise and wonderful play about Mozart, Amadeus, the court composer Salieri rails at the heavens for giving him a great mind but only mediocre talent with which to express his ideas. He could easily be describing local artist and writer Jeff Whipple. In Whipple's latest play, Telewas, currently playing at the Third Rail Company, the ideas flow steadily and contain some wit, touches of inspiration, even the potential for effective dramatic work. But Whipple's writing is beneath mediocre, his perspiration fruitless, his execution sadly and sometimes painfully trite.

While bleak sci-fi tales rarely suit the theater, Whipple's premise could work. The Telewas of the title is a television show filmed on November 14, 2093 that looks back to a less stressful time in history A 50 years previously, to be exact. Judging by the hellish environment unveiled in these series of skits about "the good old days," the turn of the next century makes Beirut look like the Cayman Islands on a particularly fine snorkeling day.

According to Whipple's collection of scenes recalling 2043, desperate people found employment as minor machines: can openers, paper shredders, and telephone ringers. Noveau delicacies included fresh squirrel shot down from the ceilings of outdoor restaurants and served au naturel, a la sushi. The southern states turned completely gay and outlawed any form of heterosexuality, while films became so exploitative they celebrated employees who went on mad rampages and killed fellow workers for no apparent reason. Commercials promoted lung-cancer-free cigarettes and Waco-type religious cults formed around Styrofoam and fresh-brewed coffee. Within many of these skits lurks acute satirical matter about the growing superficiality and insensitivity of society; the squirrel episode, for instance, could be a fitting comment about any local eatery that caters to the famous and/or the phony.

But poor Mr. Whipple serves up such conversational indelicacies as "I don't date my appliances," and "give me a break." And that's the smartest of it. The skits don't weave together as a whole to say anything, the characters come off as silly rather than sinister, and where there should be black humor, there's just a black hole. Dial-a-Mom, the best bit of the bunch, serves as a prime example. Its basic concept A a totally disenfranchised, misanthropic society needing a 1-900 number that charges $43 per minute to provide some semblance of familial love A offers unlimited opportunities for a playwright with wit and skill. In the hands of Mr. Whipple, however, the scene contains a host of mommy-love, mommy-hate cliches and holds no punch line, no point, just a fizzle. Several times during the show I imagined Whipple whispering his skewered visions into the ear of a truly gifted writer like Sam Shepard, who might have transformed this mess into one mind-boggling, society-bashing, brilliant trip.

The cast of eight performs admirably, considering the yoke they carry A namely Whipple's script and direction. With neither set nor proper lighting, and with scant props, they must portray futuristic cartoon characters lacking motive and personality. Under such grueling conditions, Liz Dennis as the girl who owns a bunch of people/household appliances and Charlie Shahanian as her telephone ringer rise so far above the material they deserve Tony nominations for Best Acting in the Midst of a Bomb.

So the next time you've had too much to drink (or something along the same lines) and a brilliant idea for a new play or novel pops into your head, by all means write it down. But take caution from the sad tale of Salieri and Jeff Whipple. Without the proper talent, that spark of inspiration will quickly wither into a dying ember.

Stage Notes
It should have been a brilliant, ground-breaking event, and it almost was. All the right ingredients came together: a major company, Naya water (distributed by Coca-Cola, no less), sponsoring the first of a series of nine performance art evenings, kicked off last Friday at the Colony Theater, with a program of four original pieces, A South Beach Evening on the Edge, followed by a lavish party. Impressive representatives of national talent occupied the stage, such as Everett Quinton, artistic director of New York's famed Ridiculous Theatre Company, and filmmaker Tony Lover, winner of scores of prestigious awards. But Quinton's work-in-progress monologue, Dracula, needs a lot more progress before presentation; the way it now stands, the piece consists of pointless ramblings reflecting Quinton's reactions to the Bela Lugosi film version of Bram Stoker's novel. Likewise, Lover's initially clever send-up of Ingmar Bergman's intellectual pretensions, a film called The Dove (De Diva), plays one joke for about five minutes too long. Seeing as how the short runs about ten minutes, that's not saying much.

Still, the best stepped forward last in the stunning dance performances of Arthur Aviles and Eric Geiger in a romantic pas de deux called Soon and finally, the incomparable Bill T. Jones dancing his Last Night On Earth. Naya and the Colony Theater directors should be applauded for this first real effort to bring the cutting edge to Miami, where it definitely belongs. I hope the next eight shows will present sharper edges and deeper cuts.

The turn of the next century makes Beirut look like the Cayman Islands on a particularly fine snorkeling day.


Written and directed by Jeff Whipple; with Randie Axinn, Liz Dennis, Gene Gabriel, Terre Lee Meth, Ron Micca, Charlie Shahanian, Tommy Strangie, and Saudia Young. See "Theater listings" for more information.

Fruitless science friction among the cast of Telewas


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