Did Mad Cat's Paul Tei select Neil Simon's The Star-Spangled Girl despite the fact that it's a bad play or because of it?
This is an unusual question to ponder when attending a play, but Mad Cat operates on a different plane of reality from most companies, a headspace so meta that most conventional considerations of a show's "goodness" or "badness" seem almost irrelevant. Mad Cat's self-reflexive, screwball remix of Simon will likely be one of the most original and, yes, unforgettable plays you'll experience this year. But, using any number of rubrics to analyze it, it's a mountain away from a good play.
The source material is most certainly a clunker. Dismissed even by Simon devotees, it's a dated, inconsequential, punishingly long culture-clash rom-com. Originally set in San Francisco in 1966 -- Mad Cat's version takes place a hundred years later -- The Star-Spangled Girl is a romantic triangle among Norman (Noah Levine), the mercurial writer of a niche, anti-American protest magazine; Andy (Theo Reyna), his roommate and publisher of the zine; and Sophie (Jessica Farr), a politically conservative Olympic swimmer who moves in upstairs. Norman falls in love with Sophie, Sophie falls in love with Andy, and you can fill in the rest.
Simon himself fills in the work with tired one-liners and soft-hitting barbs like, "If you don't get up from that sit-in, you're going to get a punch-down," "They say Formica is the hope of the future," and "In six weeks, she's marrying a Marine," followed by the Catskills retort, "What she does during the day is her own business!" And so on. This goes on for two and a half hours, with two intermissions.
Mad Cat's response to material this wonky is not to update Simon but to subvert him. Director Tei isn't producing Neil Simon so much as "producing Neil Simon," with those invisible quote fingers dancing atop every scene. First of all, there's the time change. This version of The Star-Spangled Girl is set in 2066, wherein the director's notes tell us the country has settled into a quasi-dystopian state where internet and cell-phone usage have been limited to the ultra-wealthy, and technology in general has collapsed on itself, requiring the exhumation of the primitive typewriters and landlines employed in Simon's script (none of which is self-evident; if you don't read the director's notes, you'll have to navigate the cognitive dissonance on your own).
The living-room set looks like a quirky sitcom living-room set, a curated assemblage of mismatched furnishings, books from the '70s, pop-culture ephemera from the '80s and '90s, and a Satsuma elephant for a footstool. Off to the side, a two-piece band -- percussionist Brian Sayre and guitarist/bassist Stephen G. Anthony, who also narrates some of Simon's stage direction -- adds sporadic musical commentary to the action, like the house band on a late-night show. Anthony even dons superfluous sunglasses à la Paul Shaffer.
Sayre's percussive doodles, in particular, undercut Simon's earnest attempts at middlebrow yuks, drawing more attention to the corn-fed squareness of The Star-Spangled Girl, like the ironic rim shots of yore or the sound effects in a Portlandia parody. Every musical interjection is a wink at the audience, acknowledging that, "Yes, we know this sucks." It's funny the first time; by the 20th, not so much. There's also a certain dry humor in listening to young people in 2066 reference Fanny Farmer, Esther Williams, The Prisoner of Zenda, and the LBJ administration.
But this production marinates in so much postmodern irony that it's hard to detect a single genuine note. Whereas a company like Boca Raton's Slow Burn Theatre selects flawed material in the hopes of improving it, Tei's Star-Spangled Girl only magnifies its badness.
All of this aestheticism strips the source material from its original meaning, leaving an empty canvas of movement, gesture, makeup, and decor, suggesting something like Kabuki theater with words. The actors proficiently follow this line, with Levine playing the love-struck Norman as a manic, coked-up gonzo writer (inspired by a clever inverted meaning of Simon's stage direction "Norman does a line").
But none of Tei's choices is more polarizing than transforming Farr's Sophie from the jingoistic, Southern-accented, love-it-or-leave-it "star-spangled girl" of the title to a robotic alien, a performance of extreme Otherness. She wears garish lipstick and otherworldly clothes (like boots festooned with duct tape), walks with angular precision, and speaks with a staccato, computerized voice. Listen closely and you can almost hear whirring gears when she moves across the room. Farr is spectacularly accurate at keeping in character, though on the heels of her mechanized Hedda Gabler at Miami Theater Center, it would be nice to see her in a part that permits her to emote.
The production is most ill-conceived when the rubber of this conception meets the road of Simon's script, and all of the culture-war dialogue that informs the paradigm-shifting banter between Andy and Sophie falls flat because Farr is not that character. This is the rub of Tei's The Star-Spangled Girl: It feels like a discordant, misguided dare that's been realized at its own peril, a bit of performance-art play-acting that serves neither Simon's conventional script nor an audience looking for genuinely adventurous theater. By absorbing both approaches, it succeeds at neither.
Yet it may find an audience. There's something to be said for Tei's consistency of vision, the fact that he went all the way to convert this lumbering lummox of a play into a personalized, titanic folly of idiosyncrasy. If only his boundless imagination would be applied once again to material that was more worthwhile, we might be onto something.
The Star-Spangled Girl runs through January 25 at Mad Cat Theatre Company at Miami Theater Center, 9806 NE Second Ave., Miami Shores; 866-811-4111, madcattheatre.org. Tickets cost $15 to $30.
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