By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Being terribly clever can make for terrible comedy. Freedomland, Amy Freed's odd play about a family of brilliant eccentrics, spews clever lines 90 to nothing for more than two hours. "Sentimentality is a form of murderous aggression," quips art critic Titus (Lee Trull), staring at a kitschy painting titled "Clowns Attending the Funeral of a Parakeet." Polly, a frustrated academic (Molly Milligan), agonizes over not finishing her long-stalled dissertation on "the secret lives of the women in The Iliad." Her sister Sig (Ellen Locy) begs their blowsy stepmom Claude (the deliciously daft Gail Cronauer) to "wake up and smell the Kama Sutra." Sig also announces that "if we're all each other's imaginary friends, can't we just pretend to love each other?"
Clever to the nth, for sure. But funny? Not if you folded it into an origami hat and wore it to the circus. In Echo Theatre's uneven production at the Bath House Cultural Center, Freedomland tries too hard to be smart, tripping all over itself with cut-and-paste references to Greek mythology, modern art, the June Taylor dancers, pop psychology, ancient Sumerians, S&M, theme parks and Bridges of Madison County. The dialogue is dotted with more scratch-your-head obscurities than a Dennis Miller monologue. Characters speak in extended footnotes. That's cute for about 10 minutes. Then we want something interesting to happen, for the characters to connect in a way that makes it a good piece of theater. When nothing does, when they don't, the erudite blah-blah-blah of Freedomland starts to feel like being forced to listen to the audiobook of Roget's Thesaurus.
What you have here is an awkwardly structured, overwritten sitcom masquerading as high art. Freedomland arrives with a pedigree. In 1998 the play was a Pulitzer finalist, along with Richard Greenberg's dreary Three Days of Rain. Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive beat those two for the top prize in what now appears to have been a remarkably pallid year for American drama.
If only Freed had known what to do with her menagerie of educated weirdos. The central figure, more or less, is Sig, the neurotic painter of hobo clowns whose un-ironic work has somehow drawn critical approval. For reasons never explained, Sig drags Titus, the geeky writer, to her family cabin in New England, where her father, a retired classics scholar (Vince Davis), absentmindedly stumbles through the day, mumbling about ancient lit, while the sexually adventurous, hormone-stoked Claude wraps her caftan-ed arms around anyone in reach. They all ignore perpetually unhappy Polly, who tries to latch onto Titus before Claude does (she just misses). Brother Seth (Joey Oglesby), a bearded survivalist, appears in the doorway with his hugely pregnant girlfriend (the usually delightful Andra Laine, wasted here) and a jug of moonshine. Seth may or may not be Unabomber Jr. "Love," says Seth, "is being able to say 'You fucking asshole.'" Charming.
In this mad crowd, loopy Sig soon gets lost. We don't much mind, seeing as how she's played by the immensely unlikable Locy, an actress imbued with the warmth and comic timing of dry ice. But it would have been nice to have a tentpole character to hold all this nonsense up. Instead, we're bombarded with verbal clutter in scenes so forgettable that any hint of plot is forgotten as our minds wander and our eyelids grow heavy.
Good performances are in short supply in the cast of Freedomland. On opening night, several actors struggled to remember lines. They missed cues and broke character. Only Cronauer and Trull, willing to bare nearly all for our pleasure, know how to stay focused and make the audience smile. If any of the loons in this play were inspired by the playwright's own family, she has our sympathies. She also has reason to be miffed at her mother, SMU drama professor Margaret Loft, who directed this mess.
The only character is Haley Walker, a Southern-born "restaurant idiot savant" now running a chic Manhattan cafe. She's divorced and a single mother of a teenage daughter we never see. She's also a classic dame, hiding her age but happily showing off her great gams. Haley has been out of the dating scene for too long and desperately wants back in, willing to wriggle into a skintight dress and strap on designer heels that "feel like having your foot caught in a bear trap" for an evening out with a suitable guy. Funny how they never turn out to be.
Shoes are a big deal in Bad Dates, serving as talismans of loves (and smaller sizes) gone by. Hundreds of pairs populate Derek McLane's realistic set. When the lights come up on actress Julie White (co-star on HBO's Six Feet Under and ABC's now-defunct Grace Under Fire), she's fluttering around her shoe-strewn bedroom, trying on this stiletto and that open-toed pump, like Carrie Bradshaw late for dinner with Big. White stares into the vanity mirror, then turns to ask for our approval on her choice of footwear, launching the one-sided, straight-to-the-audience conversation that will take us through Haley's colorful life story, a saga that covers love, divorce, Mildred Pierce, Jimmy Choo, the Romanian mafia, a party with Buddhists in the Hamptons, "the bug guy" and a trip to the hoosegow in the middle of the night. Rebeck's writing zings and pings in all the right ways. This is smart comedy that's clever and funny.
It's all girl talk, of course, but the bubbly chatter is delivered by White (for whom Rebeck wrote this piece) with such crisp comic flair and spot-on spontaneity that every syllable sounds like it just occurred to her that second. White is our new favorite actress, and Haley is our new best friend. If there's such a thing as a good date play, Bad Dates is it.