Published in Gay and Lesbian Times June, 2002
FIFTH OF JULY
It’s that Seventies Show….Lanford Wilson’s “Fifth of July.”
Heaven help us, it’s 1977 again, with all the bell-bottoms, fringe, tie-dye and leisure suits that entails. At Diversionary Theatre, Corey Johnston’s costumes are a hoot. But the colors are deeper than the plot. Nonetheless, there are star performances in this not-so-stellar play.
Part of Lanford Wilson’s Talley trilogy, “Fifth of July” may be the Weakest Link, especially when compared to the heart-tugging, Pulitzer Prize-winning “Talley’s Folly,” written a year later, in 1979. This piece is supposedly about moving on from the Vietnam era, coming to terms with our ragged past and creating some sort of viable future. But the story is flimsy at best, pointless at worst. The plot focuses on a disaffected, paraplegic Vietnam veteran who returns to his Missouri homestead, ostensibly to go back to teaching, but primarily to feel sorry for himself. With the help of his off-the-wall friends and family, he’s persuaded to go on with his life. That’s pretty much it. Similar to ‘The Big Chill,” but not as entertaining. Friends will always be friends and family will always be there… and other like platitudes abound. Not a lot of depth or message, but some really juicy roles for actors to chew up and relish.
Diversionary’s recently-named resident director Tim Irving is obviously having a ball with the company and making the most of the material, encouraging (as is his forte) pitch-perfect comic timing. The play may be lackluster, but the cast is dazzling. Dan Gruber is wry, sarcastic and believably handicapped as Ken Talley, and Greg Tankersley is sweet as his serene, long-suffering boyfriend. Sally Stockton is suitably ditsy as the aging aunt who’s hanging on to the past by carrying her husband’s ashes around in a candy-box. Though Moriah Angeline looks a bit old for a teen, she’s an amusingly melodramatic one. Manuel Fernandes is deliciously oily and odious as the gold-digging, wheeler-dealer husband of the captivating and irresistible K.B. Mercer, who steals the show with her frenetic, neurotic copper heiress — a wannabe country singer who thinks she’ll buy the historic old Talley place and reconfigure it as a recording studio. A bit of havoc ensues, but like the rest of the plot, not enough to make us care. Oh, and there’s also a wigged out musician (Vincent Smetana) and a former marching militant (Melissa Supera) turned mother, nag and tedious voice of reason. They all start out fairly directionless, but move on in some way at the end, if you bother to take notice.
David Weiner’s set is a winner, an instant-change interior and exterior, complemented by George Ye’s thoroughly ’70s sound design. But after the performances are appreciated and the applause dies down, there isn’t much left to hang onto. The costumes can’t carry the day, and the players seem too good for the play.
“Fifth of July” runs through July 27 at Diversionary Theatre; Thurs-Sat, 8pm; Sunday, 7pm; 619-220-0097.
Fasten your seatbelts. Prepare for the assault. Sledgehammer is at it again. Get ready for that old in-your-face feeling. The first act blitzkrieg of Don DeLillo’s “Valparaiso” is so loud, oppressive and relentless, it becomes, to borrow from DeLillo’s most acclaimed novel, “White Noise.” But media-maven Marshall McLuhan would probably be pleased. In this play, the medium is definitely the message. And the message is media assault.
In true DeLillo form, the play is more social statement than story, though there is an arc of sorts. Covering for a colleague with a rare disease, Michael Majeski takes a business trip to Valparaiso, Indiana, gets diverted somehow to Valparaiso, Florida, and winds up in Valparaiso, Chile. (Or maybe he doesn’t. Perhaps he just wants a little attention — and boy, does he get it!). The media blitz that ensues is so addictive that it consumes and ultimately destroys his marriage and his soul.
For the audience, as for Michael, it’s a bumpy ride. The ever-inventive and always-welcome director Matthew Wilder is up to his old UCSD/Sledgehammer antics, with all the excess of testosterone that entails. In Act I, we get gratuitous, lascivious female nudity onscreen and topless women onstage, an accumulation of shocking visuals backed by a deafening soundscape. But things quiet down in the second act and become much more watchable and actually enjoyable, in its mordant, mocking way. Actors aren’t screaming any more, and the level of professionalism increases significantly. Thankfully, the sound design settles down, too, though the six suspended TV monitors and extra-large backdrop-screen continue to bombard us with the familiar, everyday images that regularly blur news and nonsense, fact and fiction, erasing any distinction between the public and the private in our lives.
Meanwhile, we onlookers get sucked into becoming the audience for a daytime tell-all TV show that exposes all the noxious excesses of predatory journalism and our seemingly insatiable, voyeuristic need to know everything — anything — no matter how true or trivial, no matter what the cost.
Poor Michael gets more than his 15 minutes of fame, and we get a bellyful of DeLillo’s sermonizing and Wilder’s histrionics. And yet, like the TV shows the play exposes and parodies, the production (at least the 2nd act) is in its own warped way, compelling and impossible to resist. Some of the performances are riveting, especially Matt Kautz as Michael, Lisel Gorell as his slightly wacko wife, and Walter Murray as the sycophantic sidekick to Shonda Dawson’s gorgeously hateful host. Then there’s the bruised and blue-nippled chorus of zomboid, S&M stewardesses, who spew endless warnings, of the airport security variety. The mechanized, automaton nature of our collective inhumanity is repeatedly delivered in often brilliantly evocative language. DeLillo may be heavy-handed, but he’s unquestionably silver-tongued.
So, if you often get drunk on words, or prefer a battering-ram spritz in your social commentary, this jolt of theater’s for you.
“Valparaiso” runs through July 7 at St. Cecilia’s Playhouse, at the corner of 6th and Cedar; Thursday-Saturday, 8pm; Sunday, 7pm; 619-544-1484.
©2002 Patté Productions Inc.