By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Wayne Hudson and his accomplice-wife Scout are the Wal-Mart Bonnie and Clyde. Dubbed the "Mall Murderers" by media, the pair has shot, stabbed and strangled their way into the home of controversial film director Bruce Delamitri. He's the Wal-Mart Quentin Tarantino. Without the wit.
When we meet these characters in Ben Elton's scurrilous comedy Popcorn, now playing in a blood-splashed, thrashingly good production at Theatre Three, they have just met each other. It is Oscar night. Bruce has won one, to the disgust of critics and others in Hollywood who consider his films too sick to have artistic merit.
Besides the gold statue, Bruce has brought home another prize: Brooke Daniels, the Wal-Mart Sharon Stone. Without the wit. Their boozy seduction scene is interrupted by Wayne and Scout, who have invaded Bruce's mansion with heavy artillery and a weighty agenda. They aim to convince Bruce to convince the public, via live TV, that he's responsible for their crime spree.
After watching Bruce's award-winning shoot-'em-up Ordinary Americans, Wayne was so inspired to kill, he says, that he popped the guy at the popcorn counter. If Bruce takes the blame, Wayne and Scout figure they might avoid death row. "You're guilty but innocent in the land of the free," says Wayne, "if you got an excuse."
What begins as farce—full of snappish wit from Elton, a Brit best known as writing partner to Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis on the television comedy Blackadder—quickly evolves into chilling thriller-diller social satire. Tension mounts as Wayne and Scout grow impatient with Bruce and his house guests. Bruce's hateful ex, Farrah, and their nubile daughter Velvet get embroiled in the mess. The last to arrive is a producer named Karl, who's so oily and foul-mouthed we're glad he gets his brains splattered all over Bruce's ugly-Mod furniture.
Adapted by Elton from his own 1996 novel, the two-act piece empties both barrels at Hollywood's always ambiguous attitude toward media violence. When is it art? When is it to blame, if ever, for real-life copycat crimes? Elton doesn't come up with clear answers but he tips his hand by making his gun-wielding murderers smarter and more rational than the play's Hollywood power players. Even after Wayne has shot Karl in the head and starlet Brooke in the chest, Bruce doesn't really take the killers' threats seriously until they demand that he return his Academy Award "out of respect for the victims." Only then does he emotionally invest and only in the most self-serving way. "My life's work! My legacy! Belittled!" he moans. His legacy being a movie with scenes shot from the POV of a rape victim's vagina.
Popcorn sets up its characters and its plot with lightning speed and lots of laughs in the first act. But after intermission Elton's script devolves into a static, overlong debate between Wayne and Bruce about the entertainment industry's complicity in real-life evil acts. That leaves the play struggling for a neat and tidy ending, which isn't good. But for most of its two hours, it's like watching a funnier sequel to Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers unfold in the heaving flesh.
It's a nice surprise—no, it's a jaw-dropping shocker—to see this show at Theatre Three. The venerable playhouse at the Quadrangle usually sticks with mild, low-budget fluff that won't upset the barely upright senior citizens brigade that populates its audience. Popcorn sizzles with profanity and sexual banter. There's a hint of nudity when Brooke does a naughty striptease for Bruce. And guns! And gore! Even the 90-to-nothing pace of the production, directed by Jeffrey Schmidt, is un-T3.
Instead of the tired old workhorses who too often plod the boards at T3, the cast is young, fresh and feisty. From the now-defunct Classical Acting Company comes Emily Gray, nearly unrecognizable as Scout in her trashy Britney cut-offs and tattoos. She's a thrill a minute, tearing up the place in a coked-up whirlwind and then pausing to run her gun lazily through her fuzzy ponytail.
Rick Espaillat, a regular in gay-themed dramas at Uptown Players, gets to go all twitchy Joe Pesci as Bruce Delamitri. He's as tightly wound as a dime-store watch. Lee Trull, who gave a great performance as a Dust Bowl Okie in Kitchen Dog's End Times, plays producer Karl with some of the sexy sneer of a young Bruce Dern.
Catherine DuBord, who just starred in two shows at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, isn't quite the sexpot she should be as Brooke, but her comedy skills are gorgeous. Mollie Milligan and Teresa Valenza play Farrah and Velvet, two underwritten parts, with appropriate obliviousness.
The real reason Popcorn is hot is Nicholas Venceil, who roars into the role of maniacal Wayne Hudson. The 29-year-old returns to Dallas theater after a seven-year absence, and what a way to make a comeback. He's brilliantly funny and authentically terrifying. In character and in performance, Venceil kills.
The seven-member Dallas-Fort Worth Theater Critics Forum considered more than 250 productions from the 2006-'07 season for the annual awards list. There was such outstanding work by so many local actors, directors, designers, composers and playwrights over the past year that the number of honorees in some categories was expanded. Some were recognized for their contributions to more than one production. Actor Jeff Swearingen earned a nod for his memorable performances in two plays, The Gnadiges Fraulein and The Boxer, in which he spoke not one word of dialogue.