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8/3/12

The Last Smoker in America - When Concept Goes Ashtray


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I'm speechless.

Whether that is a good or a bad reaction after seeing a show, that's 100% dependent on the show itself. In the case of The Last Smoker in America, now open at the Westside Theater, it was just barely a...yeah, I still can't decide.

I'll say this though...I was excited for this show. Most musicals go light on premise and compensate in the other areas, from score to drama to entertainment value. The premise of Last Smoker - a suburban couple, Pam and Ernie, and son Jimmy coping with the wife/mother's smoking addiction in the future, where it is punishable by law - is so unique, I give the show a free pass on the intrigue factor alone. And the show truly transcends when it does it's world building of what the future is like, from the Apple-Google partnership to the depiction of how smoking led the world to dystopic levels (surgeons began smoking in the operating room y'all!). One of the most promising (and funny) aspects - a built-in Big Brother security and warning system, Aspyhixia, that monitors tobacco and smoke levels of the household - speaks in a robotic, monotone voice while making threats of imprisonment for smoking...the punishment? A 20-year prison sentence in Poughkeepsie. Not making that up...

I bet you thought
I was kidding.
But, unfortunately, the show stumbles in fully embracing its concept. About 30 minutes in, I realized the show was less of a foreshadowing allegory and more of a...something. I can't tell you what it is and quite frankly, I don't think they could. The plot unfolded at a lethargic pace, with a bulk of the tension coming from whether or not Pam would light up a cigarette. That was fine at first when plot seemed jettisoned for character development...I take no issue with a character study, after all. But the show's attempts at that took the form of these out-of-scene, bizarre dream numbers o' nothing. Superfluous does not even begin to cover it (not to mention, dated). Phyllis, Pam and Ernie's bible-pushing, high-pitch voiced neighbor and enforcer of anti-smoking regulations, first character introduction number features an Osmond family song-and-dance back-up, complete with sequined pant suits. Whatever flighty fun it could have been - c'mon, that should be pretty campy - is drowned up by the fact that it was the MOST RANDOM THING EVER. I had that reaction on, like, 5 other numbers as well. Not good...especially when the lyrics only had a few line gems or the score had maybe one or two great songs.

Even worse? 75% of the way through, Phyllis began leading an audience interaction, sing-a-long, chant thing at an anti-smoking bon-fire...while in song herself. I was clutching my chest because the theater is no more then 300 seats where the average age was probably over 40 and narcoleptic...who the hell would be into that? If that is not a "that's all she wrote moment," I don't know what is.

It really is a shame because it's four-person cast - well, five if you include Aspyhxia (which I do, because it gave a fierce, solid performance) - have some standout (human) performances that go as far as obscure the actual quality of the show. Farah Alvin, playing Pam, was sort-of trapped into a corner when you realize her frenetic character is the grounding influence of the show. Yeah, that did her no favors, but I dug her quirky wit and her ability to handle a full basket-case of behaviors and emotions trying to cope with all her stresses {her misanthropic husband wanting to be a rock star, her video-game addled son who thinks he is black and her nosey, grating neighbor).

The less said about John Bolton, the better...his Ernie was hardly a character as he was unfunnily mopey and disaffected (which I am sure was not the intention). He just kept bursting out into this full-blast, pointless rock numbers with occasionally offensive lyrics (which I found funny in a pointless kind of way). Oh, and that whole rock star thing was just how he coped with him quitting smoking a year earlier, going as far as using his delusional music aspirations as a vice. Well, alright then; let's just go with that...

SHUTTING.IT.DOWN
But when looking for star talent, look no further then Natalia Venetia Belcon and Jake Boyd. Belcon's Phyllis was, by far, the best character in the show - absurdly funny and intense at every juncture. All 12 or 17 of her vocal affectations are spot-on as she transitions her character from saccharinely, sweet neighbor to cutthroat bitch to docile motivator to whoring Jesus-follower to manipulative shrew and back full circle and then some to cutthroat and crazy bitch. Her performance was very Nina Arianda-esque...and you all should know by now that is high-praise.

Boyd got the short-end of the writing stick, but still left a memorable impression. His Jimmy was so "been there, done that" by the virtue of him wanting to be a gangster...and, of course, he got a whole number devoted to that aspect early on. I would complain about its "ugh"ness, but (1) I've overstated the point and (2) Boyd worked the hell out of the stage, grinding and moving and rapping and all. Dated yes, but he NAILED it and even I found myself laughing (in an eye-rolling way), as it just went on and on and on. His characterization was far from consistent though...his "gangster" quality was one of three personas for his character. In a 90-minute show. It was Glee-esque levels of inconsistent as he went from whiny, hormonal teenager to gangster to video game addict to "disaffected kid with parent problems." Regardless of the character though, Boyd made the most of it and WERQed the Osmond sequined pantsuit, his white boy rapping attire and even a pair of sensible heels at one point like he was audience shopping. He's young, talented and had a lot of fun...4 for you Jake, you go Jake!

But ultimately, the show is an "almost, but not quite." When the concept is high and a majority of the performances far exceed the material, it was time to bring it from a writing standpoint and create a real knockout. I was surprised that the show went in a different direction then I expected, but it didn't succeed at what it attempted, something that was less ambitious and demanding then what could have been. There's an idea in The Last Smoker in America that I am glad to have been a witness too...but ideas don't make for great shows when they fail to flesh the idea for all its worth and then misfire on the execution.

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