Friday, February 24, 2012

Unplug Grandma

I love the tagline for this new political satire by Jeremy Kehoe: "If you don't want to die, don't get old." It's a nice witticism from a show that's still searching for solid ground to stand on. As the director Amy Tofte, who is also a founder of the producing company Fierce Backbone and also its President, told the audience before the house lights went down, this is a workshop - somewhere between 99-seat theatre and Broadway, which she made of point of noting is the reason for the minimalist set. My first thought is, never apologize for a minimalist set before a show. Embrace it. I happened to like it. Since this was a workshop "so the writer could hear his words", and no doubt the reaction from the audience, most of the remainder of my thoughts will be directed at the script itself in hopes to help along his creative process with some of my own observations.

It's the future, a few Presidential elections down the line, Palin...Bristol Palin has become president, and a new law, "Fahrenheit 451" style, has been put into place. If you are too old to be of use, a member of a death unit gets your name and puts you out of everyone elses misery. It saves the country money and everyone else the hassle. Writing this brief synopsis, I imagine loads of opportunities for witty, biting and dark comedy, which the script in it's current form doesn't take full advantage of. Yes, the country saves money on Medicare, etc, but in what other ways are the elderly a pain? Much of this humor can come directly from Chase, as he has some major issues with those older than he is and for good reason. It's an absurd idea, so allow it to become a little more absurd; like a political cartoon.

Instead the tone of the show leans more towards a very austere, apathetic future, which could also be great, but this route makes the subject matter far too serious to call it a comedy. It currently feels more like a bedroom drama with an allegorical slant, in which the two sides of the coin are argued back and forth for most of the show (the writer preferring the side of not killing old people). It mainly takes place in one location, the apartment of a married couple MUFFY and CHASE. Muffy is the wife who has become disenchanted with the country and her marriage with Chase, as he has found employment as one of the death squad members. He claims this is so he can provide for Muffy, but he has deep seated parental issues of his own and a power trip from all the killing. A lot of the turmoil comes from Muffy having to take care of her two elderly parents Poppy and Mommy while Chase carries around a long, thin baton for beating people of their age to death with.

Muffy gets the idea that if she can bring Chase's long lost Mother into the picture, she can change his mind about the elderly and turn him back into the man she was once in love with. Love this idea. However, the entirety of the first act is a lead up to this, which is a problem. Not much happens in the first act. It takes a very long time to even begin to figure out the premise of the show. I'm all for building a little mystery into a story, but the sooner we get this out, the sooner we can play with the idea with the audience, as opposed to keeping them at arms length...it's one of the few helpful things I learned going through The Groundlings school of Improv. So, the first half is all mainly set up. There's a strange opening scene in which Muffy is taking notes from a taped recording, which makes a little more sense later, but is too oblique and strange especially since the device is never used again. We meet her parents. We meet Chase. We learn that while Chase does truly love Muffy, Muffy is unhappy. We circle this unhappy marriage for awhile, the back and forth doesn't dig too deep for the length of time spent on it; it can be made more concise. Or I'd love to see Muffy appear to actually still love Chase. I never understood why she ever did. This is something else to take note of, since the characters begin the show already firmly planted in their ideals, there's no inner conflict with any of the characters. There's no chance that they will change. There's nothing pushing them during the show towards who they decide to become. This deflates some of the potential for drama. Let us perhaps see doubt, on both sides. Let us see why she loves him in the beginning. This will also help balance out the arguments - right now it's very one-sided. I'd love as an audience member to really be put in a place to think that killing the elderly could be good for our society. But those arguments have to be really keen observations.

In the first act, there's a nice visit from Chase's sleazy boss ANDERSON, which, aside from the premise, provides the only real palpable bit of satire we see in the show. Then a mysterious woman arrives.

The second act opens with more of the same, only we get to see Chase interact with Muffy's parents. Poppy and Mommy provide light touches of humor, but nowhere near where the writer could take the satire and comedy. There's a nice moment between Mommy and Chase before Poppy drags her out. Then the mysterious woman arrives and the script elevates. The characters are drawn out of their selves and forced to face who they are and why they might be who they are. Or at least Chase is; outside of being depressed, Muffy is perfect. Yes, that was a little snarky. Thsi sequence with Chase's Mother, Ruth, was for me the best part of the script. Secrets are uncovered, a plot twist that bordered on the very convenient occurred. Does Ruth have to be the Mother Sarah of the elderly - it was a little too out of left field for me, but if we got to spend a little more time with Muffy and Ruth in the first act...well, maybe there are ways to make this work better.

The biggest problem for me with the script was the final scene, which seemed unnecessary from a storytelling stand point and a dramatic one as well. Everything that needed to be said, was already said - and sometimes repeated from argument to argument. It was quite literally like watching the first 3/4 of Act 2 repeated, just with a set change and a lack of heightened conflict. It's 10 minutes that can be excised and nothing will be lost. You don't need to put a bow on everything. And with that, I'm going to put a bow on this rather informal review. I wish the writer good luck with this project, I see lots of potential and I hope he's able to get good enough notes to help him continue in the right direction.

As a final thought, if we look this far into the future, acronyms like LOL and OMG probably won't be at the cutting edge of how youths communicate. I'm 33 and there are already acronyms that I don't understand that people 5 years younger than me are using. It makes me feel old and out of the loop. These are areas the writer can have a little more fun in.

Unplug Grandma. February 17th-26th at Studio Stage. 520 North Western Ave, LA, CA 90004.
Fri and Sat 8pm, Sun at 7pm.
For tickets go to: www.fiercebackbone.com

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