Mixed Bag

Mamma Mia! smokes, Problem Child and Criminal Genius explode, Henry IV fizzles

Aug 21, 2002 at 4:00 am
Hype. That's the name of the game (to borrow an ABBA song title) when it comes to luring bodies into theater seats. It's hard to see a play if you don't know it's happening. By way of illustration, consider a tale of two theaters.

If, by now, you aren't aware that Mamma Mia! is being presented at the Fox, you've spent too much time searching for that lost Ferris wheel in Forest Park. Mamma Mia!, the international megahit that cobbled together around 1970s disco-pop songs written and recorded by the Swedish quartet ABBA, is the most hyped musical in years. Even as you read these words, Mamma Mia! is Broadway's hottest ticket -- even more sought-after than The Producers or The Lion King. The musical has been running in New York for nearly a year now, so -- in addition to the relentless hype -- much of its popularity also must be credited to positive word of mouth. People like it.

And although there's much to like, the big surprise here is how small Mamma Mia! is. For the better part of the evening, it is a cunningly staged exercise in restraint, a minimalist musical in which a simple red feather boa can be as theatrical as a crashing chandelier or an onstage helicopter. There's only the barest amount of scenery. The most elaborate production number in Act 1 amuses with just a handful of dancers in snorkeling masks. That same act's high point occurs without the benefit of any chorus at all, when three reunited middle-aged girlfriends improvise a pajama-party version of "Dancing Queen."

Credit English playwright Catherine Johnson for coming up with a hybrid plot that incorporates 22 ABBA songs. To be more accurate, credit Johnson and Melvin Frank, key screenwriter of the 1968 movie Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell, whose premise was clearly borrowed for this musical. There, Gina Lollobrigida was a war widow who for twenty years persuaded three American GIs to pay support for a daughter each believed he had sired. Here, the premise has been advanced by one generation and moved from Italy to a Greek isle. In an effort to discover which of her mother's three former lovers is her true father, a twenty-year-old woman invites all three men to her wedding. Truth be told, the plot was more functional in the 1960s. Today, a simple blood test would answer the daughter's query. But in an ABBA musical, DNA is three initials too many.

Occasionally, especially in Act 2, supporting characters so strain for reasons to justify yet another ABBA song that the show assumes the aura of a glorified karaoke concert. But when the story serves the music -- for instance, when the mother strokes her daughter's hair before the wedding and tenderly sings "Slipping Through My Fingers" -- it's astonishing to realize how many emotions were lurking in those 25-year-old disco lyrics. Yet, despite the show's many pleasantries, its creators realized that by evening's end the format begins to fray. So after their small, sunny musical ends, the curtain call escalates into an effervescent disco concert that sends the audience out of the theater on a nostalgic high.

At its melodic best, Mamma Mia! is a bad idea gone right; at its most transparent, the musical is little more than a deftly crafted exercise in harmlessness. But after two decades of such vacuous pomposity as Cats, The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables, the much-hyped yet agreeably unpretentious Mamma Mia! has arrived in town like a breath of fresh island air.

While Mamma Mia! reaps the benefit of idolatrous television specials and splashy newspaper ads, the very unhyped ECHO Theatre Company productions of Problem Child and Criminal Genius, which are eking out a bare-bones existence in a makeshift theater at the Berzerker Studios, are well worth your consideration. These two 70-minute one-acts make up one third of George F. Walker's six-play "Suburban Motel" cycle. All six stories are set in "the same seedy motel room on the outskirts of a large city." Perhaps that large city is Walker's native Toronto, or perhaps it's St. Louis. (How I wish that Kevin Manes' scenic design had included a few glazed bricks, in homage to the old Coral Court on Watson Road.)

If I were to tell you that these plays dramatize the lives of hopeless losers on the fringe of society, surely it would sound like grim stuff best avoided. But, in fact, both plays deliver quirky, inventive theater. Walker, a former taxi driver, has an uncanny knack for writing snappy dialogue that balances comedy with drama. I can't think of any recent American play by David Mamet, Wendy Wasserstein or Terrence McNally that can match the consistency of imagination and refreshing originality manifested in these two scripts.

Problem Child concerns the efforts of a recovering drug addict (Kelly Schnider) to reclaim her daughter from the clutches of a sanctimonious social worker (Amy Brixey) who has placed the child in a foster home. As this clash of wills plays out, the child's father (Aaron Allen) sits transfixed in front of the motel-room TV, preferring the confrontations on Ricki Lake to those in his own life. "Just because it's on television doesn't mean it's not real," he justifies.

In Criminal Genius, that same drab motel room is the hideout for a gang of small-time thugs. In an abrupt change of style, the play is a manic variation on The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight. But some of this gang won't shoot at all, because they're afraid of violence. It's very funny material, adroitly crafted by the playwright and delightfully acted. The uniformly excellent five-person cast rises to the challenge of maintaining a frantic tone without tiring the viewer. The link between the two plays is Phillie (Gregory Paul Hunsaker), the hotel manager from hell, who may have been inspired by Dennis Weaver in Touch of Evil.

One of the great hazards of hype is that it sets us up for a fall, so one note of reservation: Although Walker is an accomplished and substantive writer, he's not adept at ending his plays. But until their disappointing denouements, and while they're spinning out their unpredictable tales, these two extracts from the "Suburban Motel" cycle offer surprisingly satisfying theater.

Last month, St. Louis Shakespeare opened its eighteenth season with The Compleat Works of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged), a daffy spoof on muddleheaded productions of the Bard's works. Alas, that same company's current offering, Henry IV, part 1, is one of those dreary productions that last month the company was irreverently mocking. What a pity, because Henry IV, part 1 is one of Shakespeare's most remarkable plays. Ostensibly a history chronicle, this rousing saga of insurrection and civil war skillfully weaves comedy, tragedy and history into an absorbing whole.

You wouldn't know that from this moribund staging. For the most part, what we get here is stand-in-a-straight-line tableaux, abetted by recitations of speeches that have no meaning because they are delivered by actors who have no understanding. The talented Jason Cannon, who last year gave a galvanic performance as Orson Welles in the HotHouse production of It's All True -- and who seems like a perfect fit for the aptly named Hotspur -- is burdened by costumes that reduce a fiery rebel to a fop. This is Shakespeare at its most dispiriting.

The one accomplished portrayal is delivered by Wm Daniel File as the lusty Sir John Falstaff. File is a professional who understands the fundamentals of acting -- how to set up a laugh, how to control the audience's eye and ear. You don't fall asleep when he's onstage. Appropriately enough, it is the sage Falstaff who delivers the play's most memorable line: "The better part of valour is discretion." If you discreetly choose to avoid this lame, skimble-skamble production, I doubt that even Sir John would fault you.