Theater Review - Local playwrights' performance anxieties

Three new productions capture the zeitgeist of different eras

A stage play, like a time capsule, contains clues and common objects that can stand for an entire era. In the Alliance Theatre's new play Broke, a privileged husband prefers to shop at Whole Foods, which isn't just any grocer, but a store that caters to customers with progressive values and high incomes. The Whole Foods bag on Broke's kitchen counter is more than a prop; it represents a way of life.

Three new plays by Atlanta playwrights pursue radically divergent means to capture the zeitgeist of different decades, from American racial tensions after World War II to the frivolous attitudes of the 1980s to the economic angst of the present day. Historical detail can't substitute for strong characterization, but it can go a long way to put the audience in a protagonist's place.

At the Alliance Hertz Stage, the world premiere of Janece Shaffer's Broke has the setting "Today. Right Now. Atlanta" and takes on the Great Recession. Liz Eliason (Tess Malis Kincaid), the vice president of communications for a large corporation, finds herself unexpectedly laid off. Her boyish husband Jonathan (James M. Leaming) runs a children's shoe store that suddenly seems like a vanity project that can't possibly support them or their daughter's (Galen Crawley) NYU tuition.

Broke's early scenes include compelling anecdotes about being downsized and witnessing corporate collapse. Not long after Liz is let go, the company abruptly closes, and Liz describes spending five hours at a local Wendy's with her shell-shocked ex-colleagues. All of Liz's savings was in the now-worthless company stock, putting the Eliasons in an increasingly painful squeeze. If you don't have such stories yourself, you probably know someone who does.

Directed by Jason Loewith, Broke begins with the plight of the suddenly jobless as the Eliasons cut down on expenses, put their house on the market, and take other austerity measures. Like many period pieces, the historical signifiers tend to fall away in the second act as the action zeroes in on the conflicts between the characters. Liz and Jonathan's marriage begins to crack under financial pressures, while their daughter questions whether she wants to follow in Liz's corporate footsteps. Broke features an unlikely plot twist involving an acquaintance (Elisabeth Omilami) who becomes an improbable fixture in Liz's life, but the play's portrait of economic and identity crises should still pack a punch when (if?) we get out the current slump.

Speaking of hard times, All Blues by Robert Earl Price harks back to 1948 when Pittsburgh journalist Ray Sprigle (Del Hamilton) spent 30 days in Dixie — "South of the Smith & Wesson line" — passing as Negro. The experience echoes that of Black Like Me author John Howard Griffin. It doesn't take long for the play to evoke the oppression and paradoxes of life under Jim Crow.

"I hadn't been a Negro for 10 minutes before I was called boy," says Ray, who learns that in one town, black people can face police harassment if they're caught carrying less than 15 cents or more than $5. Against a backdrop of sepia-colored archival film, black farmers and bankers talk about the impossibility of doing business when whites have all the legal authority, while black Atlantans cling to the idea of their home, "the black capital of America," as a safe haven.

A co-production with Washington College, All Blues embraces an avant-garde structure that blends collage-like effects with Ray's account of his findings. A chorus of masked young people wear minstrel-style garb, while Ray argues with imaginary characters about his motives for the project. Bob Ortiz, as Ray's black guide John Wesley Dobbs, delivers crackling renditions of poems about slave auctions and the promise of "40 Acres and a Mule." Quotes from the likes of Malcolm X and Harry Truman feel like unnecessary footnotes.

The surreal effects should theoretically convey more of the experience's psychological effects on Ray, but the action relies on too many angry lectures and clichéd images, particularly Hamilton singing Al Jolson's "Swanee" in white gloves and blue face. Perhaps blackface, while more period appropriate, would be too inflammatory today.

At Dad's Garage Theatre, Matt Horgan's Z.O.N.K.E.R.S. bears the subtitle "An '80s Tit Comedy," so it's not about the Reagan era per se. Instead, the play pays homage to a highly specific and disreputable movie genre, the T&A comedy about horny teenagers, ranging from Meatballs to Zapped!. Z.O.N.K.E.R.S. also borrows heavily from 1980s family sci-fi films like Short Circuit and Space Camp, and even features a pitch-perfect rock anthem theme song.

At a shabby science camp, two hormone-fueled nerds (Ed Morgan and Clint Sowell) construct "Boob Bot 2000" (Karen Cassady), a robot designed to locate bodacious ta-tas. Note: If you're not amused by idea of a robot that resembles WALL-E and exclaims "Boooobs!" in a high-pitched voice, Z.O.N.K.E.R.S. is not the play for you. Boob Bot gets caught peeping on two nubile teens (Perry Frost and Barbara Tushbant) at the nearby space camp, and as punishment, the boys must team with the girls to ensure the camp wins the big annual race around the lake. Initially repelled by the pervy guys, the girls begin warming to them, only to discover a Russian plot to use Boob Bot as a space weapon.

Horgan and director Anne Towns appreciate that, in retrospect, the horny-teen comedies had a kind of innocence, and that ogling at swimsuit calendars seems almost wholesome when graphic pornography is only a mouse-click away. Z.O.N.K.E.R.S.'s focuses on carnal aspiration rather consummation. When toplessness finally occurs in the climax, the show desexualizes the bare bosoms as much as possible.

Proudly inane, Z.O.N.K.E.R.S. shows nostalgia for an era before AIDS cast a shadow over the public consciousness, and when the Cold War simplified geopolitics to "us" vs. "them." More successful than Dad's other recent, pop-savvy shows such as The Change and Slaughter Camp, Z.O.N.K.E.R.S. conjures up an escapist mind-set that would rather focus on funny robots and jiggling bosoms than the real troubles of its times.

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