KPBS AIRDATE: June 17, 1992
If linguistic legerdemain is your domain, you’re gonna love “Terminal Hip.” If you’re wowed by word play, and lust over language games, you might just be able to swallow Mac Wellman’s lingfest. But if you like your sentences grammatical, and you like a logical progression of words, thoughts, and ideas, not to mention plot, characters and a linear structure to your theater fare, well, maybe you’d better see Neil Simon at North Coast Rep instead.
New York playwright Wellman, you may remember, is the one who gave us the incredibly arcane “Albanian Softshoe” at the San Diego Rep and the politically lukewarm “7 Blowjobs” at Sledgehammer. Sledge and Wellman are a fine pair: the Sledge boys have just the right irreverence for Wellman’s not-always-accessible work. But the match of the decade is playwright Wellman and actor Bruce McKenzie. No one else can wrap his tongue around those impossible morphemic masses like McKenzie can. He positively stole the otherwise lost “Albanian Softshoe,” as the hyperverbal Wingfoot. And he was a hyper-agile Bruce in “Blowjobs.”
Now he’s back in this one-man Obie-winning show, more a poem, a wordy monologue, than a play. If it weren’t for McKenzie, you could barely sit through the 45 minutes. But you stay, because he’s riveting.
In this piece, unlike most of his other work, McKenzie is more verbally than physically active, but that still goes a long way. Every movement is more spare, but that makes it more meaningful.
Which is more than can be said for the script, most of the time. Wellman is launching a diatribe on language, its overuse and misuse, and the current state of bad writing and speech in America , or America six years ago, anyway. You’ll find tortuous sentences like: “You don’t not have no super shoes when as how you don’t need not to never.” And so it goes. Harping on idioms, carping on Cheez-Whiz, perseverating on pandas and pickup sticks. This is not altogether new linguistic twisting. One cannot help but think of early Beckett, of Joyce, of e.e. cummings. Of the New York language poets. Intentionally wrong syntactically, sometimes even formulaic in its mismatches of nouns and verbs and tenses.
There are lines and moments that sparkle. “The will walls up the shall,” intones McKenzie, and later utterances become increasingly political. “White out darks the hip drive.” “Numerous wrong numbers lose radicals their job and shore up the will have ought.” “Co-opt the actor, garden variety Presidents, axe-murder the apple tree, barnstorm the money people, and yawn the yawn.”
That’s kind of what it comes down to, in the end. Yawn the yawn. But the look of it, smoky-hazy in that black, high-ceilinged old funeral parlor, is perfect. The lighting is perfect. The set is perfect. McKenzie is perfect. Even if the piece, or the world it describes, isn’t.
©1992 Patté Productions Inc.