Sunday, March 17, 2013

Latest from Clarksville Little Theatre Is a Strained, Disappointing Farce

Love, Sex and the IRS

Written by Billy Van Zandt & Jane Milmore
Directed by Alan Weller

Review by Keith Waits

Copyright 2013 by Keith Waits, all rights reserved.

One of the most common questions that come to mind when I review community theatre is how often such groups choose to produce material of such varying quality. While I was watching Love, Sex and the IRS, a play I had no previous experience with before entering Clarksville Little Theatre, it seemed clear that the script must have dated from the late 1950s or early 1960s at the latest. The sexual politics alone seem tied to a pre-sexual revolution mindset in which New York City landlords would be scandalized to find a woman in an apartment occupied by two bachelors. When one of the bachelors has to don drag in order to support attempted tax fraud when an IRS auditor pays a visit, the general tone that is taken, and some slightly homophobic subtext that is introduced, reinforces the feeling.

Shocking then to discover that the play was written and first produced in 1979 and is set in 1978. Perhaps the authors meant to engender nostalgia for strained mid-century farce, or perhaps that is too generous a thought for this badly written and self-defeating script. Sloppiness can be found: witness the opening scenes in which the landlord observes a hole in the ceiling that opens into the apartment above only to, in a later scene, observe that the men’s apartment is the only one above the lower floors. Or the fact that the tax fraud scheme at the center of the scenario cannot stand up to a minute’s scrutiny and absurdly positions the two main characters as hopelessly stupid and unsympathetic. Such inconsistencies might be only mildly troubling if the overall impact was raucous entertainment. But for this viewer it all came off as labored and only mildly amusing.

Inconsistency dominates the production choices as well.  Most of the costumes and setting seem contemporary, yet the character of the IRS auditor, Floyd Spinner, seems pulled from a 1950s sitcom: a milquetoast fussbudget in a dull suit and tie, leather briefcase in hand, who is soon drunk in the afternoon and chasing after the young female lead. As played by Wayne C. Muscar, it is the one performance of the evening that is carried off with a sure and specific point-of-view, even if it seems at odds with the rest of the production.

Which is not suggest that the other cast members have not invested considerable effort in their work, but the results are an unfortunate mixed bag of well-meaning earnest effort and good energy adrift amid the ultimately untenable script. Brandon Saylor tries his best as the lead, Leslie Arthur, but the action requires him to carry off much of the play in abominable drag. Grace Poganski’s sure comic timing is challenged by the clich├ęd conception of the mother of Leslie’s roommate, Jon; and another veteran with good comic instincts, Michael Gaither, manages some good effect with the landlord, Mr. Jansen. But the remaining cast members are never able to rise above the material.

Yet there were many audience members who seemed to quite audibly enjoy themselves, once again emphasizing that a review is simply one opinion. One patron was so taken with laughing that she could not seem to stop during the intermission. But for me, a man in drag is not funny for simply putting an actor in a dress, but rather, in this instance, an opportunity squandered in coarse slapstick. I have no objection to drag, or farce; but good theatre requires a sure foundation at any time, and no less so when trafficking in deliberate absurdity. I found such foundation missing in the text, and perhaps only a production bold enough to turn the script inside out instead of taking such an earnest approach would have stood a chance.  Clarksville Little Theatre has staged many successful productions of worthwhile plays in recent years (Assassins, The Shadow Box, Jesus Christ Superstar), but with this ill-conceived choice they have come a cropper.

Love, Sex, and the IRS
March 15-24, 2013

Clarksville Little Theatre
301 E. Montgomery Avenue
Clarksville, IN 47129

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