"Isn’t there a war?"
"A war or some such thing. I thought I heard there was one."
"That’s right. I think I remember hearing something about that."
"Which war is this?"
"It was on TV. I think it was the news?"
"The news. I can’t stand that show."
"American Apathy" has been dogging my thoughts ever since I saw it on Saturday. It refuses to let me go. This is either the funniest horror story I’ve ever seen, or the most depressing comedy I’ve ever seen. It’s an incredibly smart play about really stupid people. It’s also a very deep play about really shallow people. None of which I thought was possible. But playwright Aaron Christopher proved me wrong.
"American Apathy" is the story of Ron and Judy Cummings’ American dream/nightmare. They live in the high-end area of the suburbs in a perfect house with ever more perfect accessories. They have a son we never see - whose school friends they don’t really know, who pops up in passing discussion of things like condoms and hypodermic needles, and who joins the Marines - which any audience knows isn’t going to end well. Judy (Melissa Bechthold) spends a lot of time with her friend Elaine (Marcia Svaleson) getting all kinds of bad advice on everything from shopping to having an affair ("It’s not cheating, it’s supplementing"). Elaine’s husband David (Ryan Grimes) is in a constant game of one-upmanship with Ron (Nate Hessburg) about who can be the one to most conspicuously consume. A delivery guy and a financial planner (both portrayed by Tim Reddy) try to bring a dose of actual reality to Ron and Judy’s lives, but it doesn’t stick.
All of which sounds like the last kind of show I’d want to see. But it turned out to be exactly the kind of show I most enjoy. The kind that entertains me even as it gets under my skin. Even though I want to scream at these characters for their selfishness and stupidity, I end up caring about them in spite of myself. I take no pleasure in their pain. And I never stop hoping that they’ll wake up.
"American Apathy" is tremendously funny. Most of the comedy ends up being pitch black, but that doesn’t mean you stop laughing. The play is walking a fine line, because it would be easy to portray these people as monsters, or morons, or both. And they are. But they’re also still human under all that denial and vapidness. Aaron Christopher has written a sharply observed script. Matthew Greseth has directed it in just the right tone, not sketch comedy (though in the wrong hands, this could play that way), nor completely unforgiving satire. Neither Greseth nor the actors ever seem to forget that these characters are human beings. They’re human beings who often do and say awful things, but they’re no less in need of, and no less capable of, redemption. Any comedy this dark that has one of the main characters repeatedly put a rifle in their mouth during the final scene, but not allow them pull the trigger, is positing the possibility of change, and redemption.
As Ron and Judy, Nate Hessburg and Melissa Bechthold take Christopher’s keenly observed characters and present them in all their complexity. They don’t seem, at first, to have a lot of depth. But Ron and Judy are different from their friends in that they sense that something is wrong. It doesn’t bother them much at first. But the growing realization that something is missing, that the shiny surfaces of their lives have a hollow center, troubles them both almost from the start. The fact that there is no purpose, that they are continually pretending everything is just fine, that it is all, on some level, an act that is growing oppressively more difficult to maintain, lurks just behind everything they do. The beauty of the play, and the acting, is that no one ever comes right out and says any of this. They don’t need to. It’s written on their faces. It lives in between and underneath the words. It’s wonderfully subtle stuff that trusts the audience to dig beyond the initial laughter into what’s really going on.
By contrast, Marcia Svaleson and Ryan Grimes as fellow suburban couple Elaine and David are deliciously unrepentant. They don’t see a thing wrong with the way they live and are more than happy to drag Ron and Judy along with them to reinforce how right they think they are. They’re not happy, but they’re also not burdened with a conscience the way poor Ron and Judy are. They sleep just fine at night, and if they’re troubled, they buy something new, pick up a different human plaything, or remodel the house. Svaleson and Grimes get to say the things most of us don’t dare let ourselves think, and they revel in the opportunity. These aren’t characters who want you to like them. They just want to be the center of attention. It is in contrast to these larger than life egos that Ron and Judy start to look a bit more normal, even familiar. It’s a terrific balancing act between the four of them whenever they share the stage.
The design challenge for something like this is - how do you imply affluence without actually having to spend the hundreds of thousands of dollars it would take to literally stage these people’s lives? The clever solution they settled on was to make everything on the set (designed by Svaleson) out of wood and gray paint. The audience projects their own ideas of what the house must be like onto this blank slate (plus, at the end, there’s a surprise hidden inside all that gray). The costumes (by Emily Blanchard) are upscale in look without going overboard. Again, implication rather than literal reality. Hessburg also did double duty, helping on the prop front. Something as simple as a recurring gag with bottled water goes a long way toward establishing the lifestyle here. Every character grabs a bottle from an enormous onstage stock whenever they’re thirsty, takes a sip, then screws on the cap again and tosses it into the trash. Thirsty again? Grab another. There’s plenty. It’s only when times get tough that they try and force themselves to carry the same bottle around and drink from it more than once. There is also a series of elaborate projections both pre-show and in between scenes that establishes time, place and level of luxury. The projections also include vicious pseudo-advertisements in styles both old-fashioned and new that skewer the lifestyle we’re watching unravel.
The thing I admire most about "American Apathy" is that it isn’t content just to mock these people. That’s too easy. It’s done all the time. What this play seems to be trying to do is actually understand these people and their motivations. Why would people with functioning brains choose to live this way? It doesn’t allow the audience the simple pleasure of laughing at these characters, and then dismissing them. The Urban Samurai crew know that the people depicted in this play are the last people who are going to bother going to a theater to see it. Essentially, in a situation like this, you’re preaching to the converted. The audience for this play already agrees with the basic premise. So why see it? Because after you leave, and turn on your cell phone, and get your car to drive home, you realize you’re not that different from the people on stage you just spent two hours watching.
Oh, we’re not that bad, we reassure ourselves. But it’s a matter of degree. It’s not just the characters onstage who need epiphanies. Because if the self-satisfied people on the left wing of political discourse can’t unseat an unpopular president, can’t stop an unpopular war, and can’t hold any of their elected officials accountable for anything, how much better are they, really? If people are still dying, and nothing changes, and no one is willing to sacrifice even a modicum of their own comfort for the greater good as the entire country goes down the crapper, well then, it’s a good thing we have clear-eyed snapshots like "American Apathy" to explain to those who come after us how anyone could let it get this bad. And, honestly, the only way you can take a splash of ice cold water in the face like that, is to laugh, a lot. Like any other really good comedy, "American Apathy" goes down nice and smooth. It’s the aftertaste that’s a bitch.
The only reservation I have about the play - and it’s the thing that’s nagged at me the most - is the lack of any real solutions. Ron and Judy, in a sense, wake up to reality at the bitter end. But then what? Yes, I guess we could just wait around for those insulating themselves from the outside world to have someone they love ripped from them senselessly by death as a wake-up call. But that seems to let everyone in the audience off the hook. "Oh well, they’ll realize someday. And we’ll be here to say I told you so." Maybe it’s enough for a play this smart to clearly lay out the big question, "What’s it going to take for things to really change for the better?" However, since the audience for this play is quite likely already carrying that question around with them on a daily basis, what is "American Apathy" adding to the discussion? Humanizing "the other" is important, yes. There’s certainly enough dehumanizing behavior going on in need of some counteracting. But some kind of suggestion for how to deal with the other would be most welcome.
Still, the numerous positives here far outweigh anything else, so "American Apathy" still comes...
Very Highly Recommended.
"American Apathy" from Urban Samurai performs at the playwrights center (2301 Franklin Avenue East - the corner of Franklin and 23rd Avenues - in Minneapolis) through April 27, 2008. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $14 online or $16 at the door ($10 for students and seniors online, $12 at the door). So save yourself a couple of bucks and visit them on the web at www.urbansamurai.org. Plus, there’s a video trailer to give you a sample of the satire in store.