I wish I could tell you that Automatic Earth is a revelation, a timeless, haunting elegy to the state of mind we’re living through here in the late-as-you-can-get 20th century. Heck, it’s written in a slippery syntax that resembles the spontaneous bifurcation which characterizes smoke rings, the formation of category-5 hurricanes, and maybe even a self-recursive sestina. And it flaunts a relentless attack of gorgeous digital video projected onto an almost IMAX-sized screen, providing visual clues to the tropical-depression subtext that playwright Kevin Cunningham means to juxtapose with his Henry Fool–ish leading man. I’d like to say that the fabulous Signature Theatre is the perfect site for the seamless merger of technology, art, and the human body, but from the looks of this play, it’s a marriage left at the altar.
Inspired by Cunningham’s work with violent psychotic patients in high-security hospitals, and, of course, his interest in nonlinear dynamics as it applies to biological systems, Automatic Earth immediately establishes its two narrative strands. As Vining (P.J. Sosko) is discovered with a brain-damaging pitchfork in his head, on the screen behind him a frog in Africa burps, setting off a chain of biological events that eventually produces a hurricane. Surreptitiously changing into a variety of evening dresses while perched on a spiral staircase, a sassy Narrator (Vera Beren) guides the audience through the evolution and movements of the storm.
Vining reacts to his surroundings robotically, speaking in an incoherent monotone that gradually becomes more intelligible. In the early, discomfiting mental institution scenes, he coaxes a patient with cannibalistic tendencies to bite him—a moment that evokes nausea and eros at once. A tableau of writhing and twitching inmates remains on the stage through the rest of the play, a device that works only when the biter interrupts the narrative, mumbling poems Vining left him copies of.
Making his way from upstate New York to Texas like a catatonic Kerouac, Vining comes upon Chester (Sara Parry), a sort of codependent topless dancer looking for her freedom in Mexico. At this point, the storm— now 500 kilometers wide—has become a giant “warm low-pressure system pissing hot rain.” On cue, Chester seduces Vining with the now obligatory Blue Room seminude straddle as he pleads with her to “use him,” the way clueless alien babes asked Star Trek dudes to teach them about love and sex. “I found the perfect guy,” she muses, as the storm blows the roof off the abandoned shack they’re spending the night in.
The biting episode aside, the problem with Automatic Earth is the lack of dramatic opportunities for its actors. Stepping into this void with a charismatic turn of comic relief is Jerry, a junkie painter played with Bill Murray–like brilliance by Stephen Payne. When Payne does a hilarious variation on the classic heroin nod, the audience breathes a sigh of relief. Lustily engaged by the chance to track down Chester at Caligula’s, a local titty bar, Jerry delivers the play’s best lines as he discovers the chaotic pattern of Vining’s poetic genius. All that remains are the loose ends of the hurricane story—which climaxes with some very trippy full-motion graphs and charts—and a soliloquy by Vining. Cunningham and the 3-Legged Dog company will no doubt have much to say about the future of theater, but this ambitious multimedia work is still more of a mechanical drawing than an objet d’art.
The Nellie Olesons have bought into the notion that we’re all so suffocated by p.c. attitudes that even us liberals don’t know how to relax and have fun anymore. Supposedly we’re so damned repressed that trotting out our deepest comic fantasies about handicapped people and minorities will have an effect somewhat akin to that of the sexual revolution. This could almost be a working proposition if You Are Now Entering Nellie Oleson‘s material were actually funny—but most of it isn’t.
That’s not to say I wasn’t charmed by the raunchy quartet (Nora Burns, Terence Michael, John Cantwell, and Nancy Kissam). They are agile and witty physical comedians with a deadpan flair for the bizarre. They depend heavily on musty genital humor—one routine features a husband feeding his child with his penis—but they too easily exploit feeble stereotyping, like with Congresswoman Crackwhore and The Silly Faggot game show. The closing piece, the would-be TV pilot Cripple Creek, kind of works because it parodies the current trend of gross-out, anti-p.c. humor by piling it on to absurd heights. It gets to the point where you can almost admit a gay man in a blond wig playing a bitter, deaf high school girl is actually funny.
There, I’ve loosened up. Got any more jokes?