KPBS AIRDATE: April 1, 1992
Jack Heifner’s new play is no bargain. For a lot less money, you can stay home and watch TV. “Bargains” is straight sit-com, pure and simple. The only thing missing was the commercials. And I only wished I had a remote control channel-changer. At home, I wouldn’t have stayed tuned for thirty minutes, let alone two and 1/4 hours.
This is a tiny little piece about tiny little personal victories. It has no business being blown up the size of the Old Globe stage, with a lushly detailed set and a bunch of actors playing their guts out and pushing their lung capacity to reach the last row. I just couldn’t figure out why.
The story line is painfully slight. Something about the old ways being lost in the new days. Two long-term Texas saleswomen in a mom-and-pop department store realize that personal service is a thing of the past. The store is going under, and a young New York sharpie has been hired as manager. He treats them poorly, they stand up to him. Eventually, they’re all out of work, which gives the women a reason to start their lives over. If there weren’t so many forced references to current culture, you’d swear you were in the fifties.
Frankly, the audience seemed to like it. But with all due respect, it looked like a Roseanne Arnold crowd to me. My date and I didn’t even so much as chuckle once, the laughs were so cheap. But the rest of the house seemed to be primed for a comedy and they guffawed on cue as if the studio “Laugh” light had flashed on for them.
The two protagonists are a shopworn odd couple. If they were men, they’d be cop buddies. One’s sloppy, always late, a party animal. The other is prissy, prim, compulsively neat and early. Of course, they wind up the best of friends. Partners, even. And they’re linked by one other factor, besides unemployment: Both have forfeited their lives to cater to a family member. For Sally, it’s a mother who was supposed to die eighteen years ago. For Mildred, it’s a loser brother, who, we subtly find out late in the second act, is gay, though there’s been a long-term stereotypic buildup of failed jobs as a hairdresser and interior designer.
The new manager has a problem at home, as does the very pregnant little shop girl. But both those characters are clumsily disposed of in the first act, and we never see them again.
I think everyone involved with “Bargains” was sold a bill of goods. Like that the play was funny, or meaningful, or worth mounting at such a cost. Director Jack O’Brien treats it like a period comedy, with humor and reverence. Everyone seems to be trying too hard, to make a silk dress out of a schmatta.
If this is the most interesting new play the Globe could find, we’re in trouble. And if this is the future of American theater, then the intellectual decline of this country is even worse than our economic downslide.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1992 Patté Productions Inc.