Anatomy of a slacker

You don't have to be a twentysomething to dread the idea of a bleak comedy written by a twentysomething playwright about twentysomethings who have no direction in their lives. I shall remain in this demographic for about 10 more months, and I've spent more than half of this last decade watching overpublicized, underdeveloped young filmmakers crash and burn trying to peddle their own existentialist hell as philosophy. Many decades ago, Left Bank intellectuals proffered existentialism, for the most part, as a rejection of years of training with the classical canon; folks who came of age in the '90s flaunted slacking as an intellectualized excuse to continue suckling at the pop-culture teat. I date myself terribly as part of the latter group when I admit there's not such a humongous gulf between themes in the pop and classical canon, but I'm bored by so many depictions of pre-thirties ennui. This is mostly because I've grown weary of seeing my life reflected without the dramatic tension and detached insight that the best art provides--in other words, reflected in its current undramatic, uninsightful state.

So let me confess my pre-performance terror of Straight Jacket and Tie, a McKinney Avenue Contemporary production of a script by Kitchen Dog Theater Company member Aaron Ginsburg, who also directs. You should note that this is not really a Kitchen Dog show, employing Ginsburg as the only upper-case canine talent among both cast and technical crew. But in one sense, because Kitchen Dog consists almost exclusively of young Southern Methodist University attendees and so does Straight Jacket and Tie, you can view it as at least a bastard child of the MAC-Kitchen Dog-SMU menage a trois.

You must certainly realize that few other playwrights in Dallas--and there are a surprisingly significant number of them--would receive even a two-weekend run at the MAC unless they had a connection with the space's resident company. (Hopefully, the opportunities will open up a bit if the proposed new space achieves fruition next year.)

But critics will have a hard time using Aaron Ginsburg's Kitchen connections against him, at least if they see Straight Jacket and Tie. His examination of the trials of three recent college graduates who try to adapt themselves to open-ended adult responsibilities cries out for a re-edit--a selective literary bladesperson could whack off a good half hour from the current two-hour performance time. This would be in service to Ginsburg's core achievement: a mature look at immaturity, let's call it, or a dispirited view of the lingering, agonized death of teen spirit. Sometimes I felt smothered by the playwright's more specious riffs and his apparent inability to recognize that a play about aimlessness and indecision must, even more than other works, have a decisive aim to drive the point home. More often I was charmed by Ginsburg's singular wit and buoyant facility with character collisions and the wise observations they can spark. And although I felt worn down by the show's close, the sucker cynic inside me couldn't help but acknowledge Ginsburg's admirable refusal to lift his characters out of their hedonistic mire with a happy ending. If you've been lucky enough to attend college and spent some part of that time delaying your emotional development through chemical means, the realization that adulthood is a harsh, unforgiving, and capricious distributor of rewards--and that the sand seems to pick up speed the longer it drains--can be a most frightening Gorgon. And ultimately, it's a monster you must negotiate with rather than vanquish.

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At their best and most poignant, Ginsburg's characters admit this between long sessions of joshing, bragging, and swilling happy-hour beer. We have James (Scott Openshaw), the compulsively unhappy agitator of the trio, the one who knows he's wasting his time employed at a bagel store while he harbors musical aspirations(his degree was in musical theory) but doesn't have the courage to do anything about it. James' constant complaints about aimlessness and loneliness--he is the most nakedly desirous of female companionship--are like the late-night ramblings of a child terrified by a nightmare, except he can no longer hold on to the excuse of childhood and will not wake up from this nightmare. His roommate Scott (Erik Johnson), who can recite the weeknight and weekend drink specials of every bar in town, is always up for amorous cruising, whether at a nightspot or a grocery store, and at work endures an overbearing boss who hovers constantly around his computer. We get to know least about the quietly hostile Russell (Michael Federico), who tells big honkin' lies about his sexual conquests while he maintains his favorite position: sprawled out in the same chair smoking, drinking, and watching TV.

Fleshing out these frustrated tales are two actors in a series of small but significant roles: Tara Gibson as the female objects of desire, usually unattainable, and Max Hartman as bosses and co-workers, usually intolerable. They flesh out the fantasies and confessions that our trio of antiheroes tell each other in the strangling intimacy of their apartment.  

Straight Jacket and Tie shouldn't feel as long as it does, given that Ginsburg the playwright has crammed it full of scenes that last only a couple of minutes each and that Ginsburg the director proves he's able to maneuver his actors to milk maximum audience reaction for both long and short scenes. Opening night's performance elicited big laughs and a series of scattered ovations from the crowd. Selective eavesdropping on audience conversations before and after the show and during intermission revealed that a large number of the faithful were SMU students, or friends and family of the actors, or students from other colleges who were friends of SMU students. And so, obviously, some of the hugely affirmative reaction came from "papering"--the not uncommon opening-night phenomenon of the biased converging to lend their support. And some of that support came from the fact that Ginsburg has written a show that hits graduates and soon-to-be graduates right between the eyes with the absurd shit that they're trudging through right now.

The playwright-director was gifted with a very confident cast to aim his script's best face straightforward at the audience. Indeed, Ginsburg's multiple twentysomething tangents would've felt considerably more tangential without the sharp, unruffled efforts of the three central actors. Scott Openshaw, Erik Johnson, and Michael Federico (who, for all the world, looks and sometimes acts like the younger, meaner brother of former Kids in the Hall member Kevin McDonald) were in full command of the talky material's desperate, delirious punchiness. Tara Gibson was thankfully never humiliated as the female manifestation of the men's hopes and wet dreams, but neither was she ever defined: Gibson provided solid support in this microcosmic man's world. Max Hartman was given more focused stereotypes for his brief scenes, and he delivers the goods. He also delivered the show's funniest throwaway monologue as the vengeful employee of a corporate bagel shop.

The biggest problem with Straight Jacket and Tie is that there are too many sitcommy slacker moments that can be crumpled up and thrown away. Some of the expedient exchanges are entertaining, others distracting. When one character begins to initiate a conversation about whether a roommate is a "righty" (uses his right hand) or a "lefty" (uses his left hand) while masturbating, the moment feels like artificial riffing. As most males of my generation who'll even admit to masturbation rarely get into the mechanics of it, Ginsburg has shown us a touchstone that's too unpolished to be recognized by all. Interludes about car commercials, Beatles songs, The Price Is Right, nude centerfolds, and which-celebrity-would-you-sleep-with? ambush your funny bone and cloud your mind's eye, which has developed a cataract by the play's tentative, heartbroken final confrontation. Ginsburg has located an emotional impasse within a middle-class white male heterosexual context--the first baby steps toward building an adult identity for yourself, and the turmoil this causes when close friends start down divergent paths. Many who've lost or discarded friends during this process would rather forget it ever happened. With a leaner, more pointed, more discerning script, Aaron Ginsburg could make an eloquent case for why they should remember.

Straight Jacket and Tie runs through July 18. Call (214) 953-1212.

Dallas-based playwright Molly Louise Shepard doesn't lack for confidence when discussing her own works--close to a dozen completed plays that have all been staged professionally at places such as Off-Broadway's Primary Stage; Southern Repertory, the only equity house in New Orleans; and Big State Productions in Austin as well as Fort Worth's Scott Theatre.

"I'm a good playwright," Shepard says, less arrogantly than pragmatically. "I don't do bulk mailouts, and I don't enter contests. It's on a personality-connection basis; my plays are my children, and I want to have them."

New Theatre Company's Bruce Coleman has agreed to act as babysitter for a two-weekend staged reading of Shepard's new work, Flat Blue Panama. It's the first entry in a season of staged readings by New Theatre's new playwright program, Newerx.

"I have a very light exterior, but a dark interior," Shepard says. "I don't write comedies, although there is some levity in Flat Blue Panama. It's a surrealistic piece about a West Texas family living on a rock formation that looks like a Panama hat."

Shepard says she has been a part of the Dallas theater community for 20 years now, having been associated with various companies in various capacities and having spent a brief time producing shows at the now-defunct Skyy Gallery in Exposition Park, which she operated. She has just formed, along with Angry Girl writer-performer C.J. Critt, a nonprofit that will concentrate on producing and developing female playwrights--especially themselves. Work by both Critt and Shepard will be featured in the upcoming "A Month of Sundays," Natural Blonde's October Sunday staged reading series scheduled at Frank's Place in DTC's Kalita Humphreys.  

"I don't think most of the theater community in Dallas would recognize me," Shepard says. "I'm sort of a recluse."

Shepard casually admits that her ultimate goal is to "vault myself nationally. I'm making new friends with each show." But, she says, "I can't picture myself living outside of Texas. All my work has been about different regions of Texas, or in the case of The Interloper, about a Texan transplanted to San Francisco. I'm patriotic for the place. It gives me everything I need."

Flat Blue Panama runs through July 18 at Theatre Too. Call (214) 443-9104.

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