“America is just one big strip club.” Hustlers, IT Chapter Two, and Theatre Nova’s latest production Admissions

  • [Image Source: Wikipedia]

    “… the ‘Horatio Alger myth’: a teenage boy works hard to escape poverty. Often it is not hard work that rescues the boy from his fate but rather some extraordinary act of bravery or honesty. The boy might return a large sum of lost money or rescue someone from an overturned carriage. This brings the boy—and his plight—to the attention of a wealthy individual.” – Wikipedia entry on author Horatio Alger
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    “America is just one big strip club … You have people tossing the money and people doing the dance.” – Jennifer Lopez’ “Ramona” in Hustlers
  • “From one angle … motherhood can be viewed as one long journey of overcoming obstacles. I salute mothers everywhere who overcome obstacles with grace, courage and tenacity. … There was this huge obstacle in the way that needed to be fixed for my daughter’s sake.” – amalgamation of quotes from scandal-ridden Desperate Housewife Felicity Huffman
  • “Motherhood is a kind of madness.” – Jennifer Lopez’ “Ramona” in Hustlers

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

America is a “land of opportunity,” that is, if you are on the right side of the carnival game. This fall’s cinematic completion of Stephen King’s classic novel It, directed again as a labor of love by Andy Muschietti, opens with a grown man defeating a little girl in one such street fair contest and then magnanimously leaning down, whispering in her ear “thank you for letting me win,” and handing her the ugly stuffed frog (I think it was a frog?) he receives as a prize. It is as warm a moment as it is pandering, the young man’s buddy looking on admiringly. As the two men wander away, they lock in an embrace. Things aren’t what they seem. Moments later they are victims of one of the most brutal gay bashings I’ve seen on screen, the result of malevolent Pennywise the Clown’s supernatural influence on an already provincial, ugly, small-minded Maine town. (Truth be told, small-minded small towns are one of King’s favorite literary targets, God love him). There’s your American dream, folks, in one cynical, tragic, and heartbreaking 15 minute sprawl. [King based the incident in his novel on a real-life hate crime in Bangor, Maine, in 1986, at a time when few people would publicly address such horror.]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Hustlers, written and directed with sizzle and sass by Lorene Scafaria, brings Jennifer Lopez, the actor, back on screen in a fiery mama lion performance, the likes of which we haven’t seen from her in years. Lopez is a multi-hyphenate talent and by all accounts a pretty likable human being, but she has not been willing to play anything other than that on screen in a long time. Her stripper den mother Ramona avails herself of the 2008 financial crisis and the ugly stew of capitalistic greed, toxic masculinity, rampant misogyny, female objectification, and weaponized sexuality that seems to be Wall Street’s stock-in-trade (if the movies are to be believed … paging Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko). Imagine if Magic Mike were written and produced by the team who put together The Big Short.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Ramona and her pals (a dynamite ensemble that includes Crazy Rich AsiansConstance Wu, Akeelah and the Bee‘s Keke Palmer, and Riverdale‘s Lili Reinhart with crackerjack supporting turns by Julia Styles, Trace Lysette, Mercedes Ruehl, and singers Cardi B and Lizzo) gleefully (and illegally) flip the script on predatory men, drugging them, dragging them to strip clubs, draining their corporate credit cards, and leaving them in a heap of deflated machismo, far too embarrassed to press any charges. The women’s motivation? A mix of revenge, justice, and primarily a desire to provide better lives for their daughters, grandmothers, and other women in their lives.

[Image Source: Theatre NOVA’s Facebook Page]

The third leg of that “American dream”? College education and that carnival game that is the admissions process are addressed with incisive wit, searing criticism, and deft balance in the timely Michigan premiere of Joshua Harmon’s play Admissions by Ann Arbor’s Theatre NOVA, directed with aplomb by David Wolber. (Note: this show must be a beast to learn and to mount, with its zig-zagging clutch of monologues and whiplash inducing reversals of philosophy. I suspect Wolber and cast must share the kind of  brainpower required to complete the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle in record time.)

Hill and Burcon [Image Source: Theatre NOVA’s Facebook Page]

In Admissions, a cheerfully smug couple Sherri and Bill, both working in administration at a New England prep school (Diane Hill and Joe Bailey, both at the top of their games here), are faced with the consequences of their own best liberal intentions to create “balanced diversity” at Hillcrest (the setting of the piece) when their own son, a student there, is wait-listed for Yale University. Their boy Charlie – a brilliant whirlwind of well-meaning confusion and privileged petulance in Jeremy Kucharek’s thoughtful performance – is passed over by Yale in favor of his best friend at Hillcrest (and the child of his parents’ best friends), a young man of color, whom Charlie believes to be “less accomplished than himself.” As you can imagine, in the grand tradition of school-based satiric comedies like God of Carnage or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, matters escalate and spiral quickly. Cynthia Szczesny as Sherri’s befuddled assistant and Sarah Burcon as Sherri’s best pal Ginnie serve as a kind of de facto Greek chorus, highlighting the absurdity of the situation and the dire consequences of good intentions that are as ego-driven as they are divorced from day-to-day reality.

Bailey, Hill, and Kucharek [Image Source: Wikipedia]

I don’t want to spoil the twists and turns the narrative takes, but, suffice it to say this is neither a play the MAGA crowd will love nor one any Bernie Bros will embrace. Admissions casts a pretty scathing eye on us all and the mechanisms we craft to make a better world in our own images (whatever we believe those images to be). The title, of course, is a play on words: the literal use of “admissions” in terms of higher education and the figurative in terms of those honest truths we can’t bear to say out loud. A special shout out to Daniel C. Walker’s brilliant and economical use of Theatre NOVA’s warm, inviting, but challenging physical space. The use of a turntable to contrast home and office is smart, efficient, and (perhaps unintentionally) symbolic of the topsy turvy nature of the play itself.

[Admissions runs through October 13 and tickets may be purchased at www.theatrenova.org.]

And now back to It, Chapter Two. The first film nailed the pastoral qualities of youth in America, with that bubbling, malevolent, churning undercurrent of impending adulthood, cultural manipulation, and familial and societal abuse that Stephen King does so very well. The second film – not dissimilar to the second half of the 1990 ABC mini-series – suffers structurally in that the Losers Club are reunited in adulthood, seemingly all amnesiac to the horrifying events of their youths at the hands of ugly townspeople, parents, bullies, and Pennywise himself. It, Chapter Two is at its strongest in flashbacks to the children of the first film, filling in the gaps of the fateful summer depicted in Chapter One.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

That said, the adult cast of Chapter Two – including Mamas Jessica Chastain, Trainwreck‘s Bill Hader, X-Men‘s James McAvoy, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ransome, and Andy Bean – do yeoman’s work selling the turmoil of adults, who have successfully “forgotten” the abuses of small town American living to achieve material success (if not emotional happiness) in the “big city.” Pennywise, brilliantly played again to maximum creepiness by Bill Skarsgard, is the inversion of the Horatio Alger myth and more likely a corollary to the true American experience. It is not a helping hand magnanimously offered that pulls someone up the corporate ladder, once said individual has demonstrated his or her “heart of gold;” it is fear, it is persecution, and it is one heaping chip on one’s shoulder, propelling us onward toward “happiness,” the achievement of which may never be all it’s cracked up to be.  If there’s a through-line in the three very disparate entertainments I took in this weekend, it’s that.

  • “The essential and defining characteristic of childhood is not the effortless merging of dream and reality, but only alienation. There are no words for childhood’s dark turns and exhalations. A wise child recognizes it and submits to the necessary consequences. A child who counts the cost is a child no longer.” – Stephen King, Salem’s Lot.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“Smells like Marlboros and farts.” Planet Ant Theatre premieres Who Run the World

Originally published by EncoreMichigan

We live in fraught, absurdist political times. Kurt Vonnegut couldn’t even have anticipated how off-the-charts bonkers our reality show polarization has become. So, there is a timely, refreshing, and essential concept at the heart of Planet Ant’s latest original work Who Run the World – taking its title from the pop-feminist anthem  “Run the World (Girls)” by that ubiquitous purveyor of hard lemonade Beyoncé.

The show – written from what appears to be a series of free-wheeling improv exercises by director Lauren Bickers and her unrestrained cast Dyan Bailey, Suzan Jacokes, Esther Nevarez, Scott Sanford, Caitlyn Shea, and Sarah Wilder – is an interesting conceit. What will be the logical (and comically tragic) progression of our society by 2040 if we continue down this Red State/Blue State, feminist/antifeminist, extreme left/alt-right striated path?

Cast of Who Run the World (Photo by Scott Myers)

In the evening’s most effective and crispest moments, a series of video montages (created by Bailey, who used a similar technique in The Ringwald’s concurrently running production Merrily We Roll Along) bring the audience up-to-speed on world events from 2018 to 2040. America is rocked by a series of increasingly extreme political swings – President Oprah Winfrey succeeds President Donald Trump; she is, in turn, defeated by President Donald Trump, Jr.; he is ousted by President Ellen DeGeneres who is overtaken by Prezident Kid Rock (who didn’t even know he was running). A full out gender war erupts, centered around a network of Target stores, and eventually the women prove victorious driving unenlightened men into a series of, yes, “man caves.”

The gynocentric society, on the surface, seems practically perfect in every way: work/life balance, a presidential cabinet made up of bureaucrats dedicated to peace and culture and comfort, and omnipresent “dance breaks” set to the strains of Black Box’s “Everybody, Everybody.”

I admit my other favorite aspect of the show was the pre-show music/scene interludes, which all seemed to be emanating from my own personal iTunes collection. Any time I hear Madonna’s “Human Nature” during a performance (which has been … never … up-until-now), I’m a happy boy. “I’m not your b*tch. Don’t hang your sh*t on me.”

It’s unfortunate, then, that the actual show doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its surreal high concept. The performers–playing both the aforementioned cabinet members as well as a series of mulleted, flannel-wearing male denizens of the underground–should be commended for the ferocity and BIG energy with which they attack the material, but many scenes seem unrehearsed, perhaps even improvised on the spot, which clashes with the slick and professional nature of the video narrative. Further, the production seems to exist at three decibel levels: loud, louder, and loudest. For such an intimate space, this flattens the proceedings, giving the show an extended “skit-like” quality. When the cast is all present onstage, there is such a cacophony of voices and movement, it is at times difficult to discern exactly what is transpiring.

Dyan Bailey, Scott Sanford (Photo by Scott Myers)

There are many funny lines but they are lost as the actors’ articulation isn’t always up to snuff. Or clever quips are delivered with the blunt force of an anvil striking the audience on its collective head, losing the wry, satirical touch that would make them really zing. For example, one particular “man cave” is described as smelling like “Marlboros and farts.” The line made me chuckle, not from its actual delivery, but from its potential.

That is not to say that everyone involved doesn’t have their moments. Dyan Bailey has great fun channeling Kathleen Turner- meets-Donald Trump-meets-Ernst-Blofeld as societal matriarch Kameela Toriana (Department of Appearance and Diplomacy). There isn’t a piece of Jennifer Maiseloff’s underdeveloped scenery she won’t chew (her use of an exercise ball as her throne was particularly effective and amusing), and Bailey’s sheer force-of-hurricane-gale-will keeps the show moving apace.

Caitlyn Shea offers the closest thing to character progression in her shrinking violet-turned-Norma Rae Tracee McAllister (Director of Unpacking), who brings some nuance to the cartoon-like proceedings and revels in her character’s whiplash-inducing turns of personality.

The remaining cast members have some zippy moments, particularly when each goes to the “man cave” of Scott Sanford’s Addison Houser to explore their respective vices. There is an interesting narrative sequence to explore in these scenes if Planet Ant continues to develop the piece. These “vice visits” form a kind of Faustian compact – not dissimilar to Jack Nicholson’s increasingly menacing trips to commiserate with the spectral barkeep in The Shining – wherein the characters discover their true selves and the balance they’ve lost amidst political extremes. If the Who Run the World team works on refining those scenes, that sequence could provide much-needed narrative spark and character development to the play.

I may not be the right audience for what Planet Ant does. The full-house on opening night roared with laughter and approval, particularly as the show escalated further into Saturday Night Live territory or when actors riffed off-script due to a missed light cue or misplaced prop.

As an aside, when I bring my friend Lauren to a show, there seems to be an ironic bit of foreshadowing in our pre-show dinner conversation. I held forth at Green Space Café about how I just didn’t get “improv” and often found the humor therein a bit of a “stretch” for my linear sensibilities. As we watched Who Run the World, which I hadn’t realized was improv-based until I read the program immediately prior (shame on me), it reminded me that, at least for this viewer, I prefer a tightly rehearsed show with clear and nuanced character delineation, levels, and timing. I offer this to say that if you are a fan of improv, you might really dig Who Run the World … and I’m just a crabby fuddy duddy.

That said, I suspect there is a really sharp 45-minute piece buried somewhere in Who Run the World’s two-hour run time. With some Draconian editing, the show could be just the tonic our troubled times need. I, for one, crave a new Crucible, Children’s Hour, or, hell, Book of Mormon for this MAGA vs. #MeToo cultural dumpster fire in which we are currently living. Who Run the World ain’t it yet … but with some work, it might be.

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Lauren Crocker, Roy Sexton – opening night of Who Run the World

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.