Protagonists in drama don’t need to be likable. Personally, I’ll pass on dinner with the Macbeths, Hedda Gabler, and King Lear (never mind Didi and Gogo, who clearly you can’t take anywhere). Each holds, however, a standing invitation to the stage, where good manners count for less than complexity, irony, and wit. Two new plays disappoint not because their main characters aren’t model citizens, but because they fail to earn our interest. While a little incentive for emotional investment would be nice, the real trick is to ensnare our imagination. Neither Murphy Guyer’s World of Mirth or Robert Lyons’s P.R. Man can pull it off. Instead, they give us dislikable figures who numb us not so much with shock as with indifference.
Perched in the Clown-Dunk with a fifth of scotch, Sweeney (Mark Johannes) serves as both chorus and antihero of Guyer’s World of Mirth. A jester with a Nietzschean bent, he shouts into his microphone the cynical truths his fellow circus performers avoid. Though misery is this comedian’s shtick, don’t expect to find a painted tear running down his cheek. As sentimental as a serial killer on the lam, he’ll rip the lungs out of anyone who comes within two feet of his broken heartstrings.
Needless to say, it’s not a happy time for the World of Mirth circus. Not only has the Frogman drowned himself, but a hurricane has left the place flooded and without electricity. The backstage freak show—replete with booze, four-letter words, and suicide—has begun to surpass even the Wild Woman of Borneo’s gross-out act.
With the operation indefinitely suspended, pink slips are flying. First to get the ax is Emmett (George Bartenieff), an old heroin addict whose whimpering for mercy falls on deaf ears until a temp job and bag of “medicine” are offered as a stopgap. Augie (Kieran Campion), a young carny in love with a mute, wants to rescue the ill-fated Clown-Dunk, which he co-owns with Sweeney. His sappy entreaties to his partner to straighten up his foul-mouth act, however, are met with eviscerating disdain.
A few too many wisecracks at the fire inspector’s expense leave Sweeney with a face full of bloody pancake makeup. Fat chance, though, of a beating shutting up this bilious buffoon. Like one of those inflatable Bozo punching bags, he bounces back smiling each time he’s hit. Guyer has created a consummately annoying central character with virtually no potential for change. Frozen in his own bitterness, Sweeney’s only option is to do himself in—a dramatic choice devoutly to be wished after nearly two hours of his nonstop harangues.
This barking fool might have nobly served as a peripheral commentator, but he’s too one-dimensional to be the featured gig. If his splenetic intellect seems sharp, it’s only relative to the deluded wretches around him—he’s merely the smartest in the slowest class. Though there’s definitely a method to the malignancy (derailing Augie from a Big Tent career is clearly part of Sweeney’s agenda), World of Mirth does little more than inspire a few bars of “Send Out the Clowns.” Director Dona D. Vaughn’s cast is fully committed to their remedial roles, but all the grit in the world can’t endow Guyer’s caustic skit with genuine character.
Robert Lyons’s comic-book-esque satire P.R. Man revolves around an unprincipled spin doctor who’s called in by Delicious Apples to replace the term “toxic sludge” with the more friendly “biosoil.” Apparently the company’s fertilizer has been wreaking neurological havoc on orchard communities in the Midwest. But why bother to correct the problem when verbal whitewashing is so much less expensive? Paul Mann (Chris Henry Coffey) would argue that his publicity efforts provide an even more effective solution (and he just so happens to have a few testimonials lined up to prove it). Slickly attired in his Barneys best, this six-figure-a-year, porno-addicted slimebag demonstrates a decontructionist’s understanding of the way language fixes reality. (Could it be merely a coincidence that his namesake is the notorious Paul de Man, the literary critic who jettisoned the signs and signifiers of his own Nazi past?)
No one expects to be suckered into liking any of Lyons’s ethically retarded characters, yet it would be fun to admire their devilish panache. The flaccidness of the wit, however, makes this impossible. (The overall style is reminiscent of those seemingly unkillable syndicated comics that are neither funny nor serious.) Lyons further miscalculates by introducing a love interest into a situation that is otherwise lacking in human feeling. The willfully kooky supporting cast offers only hastily colored magic-marker portraits, while the leads’ stylized delivery undermines both their romantic and lampooning ends.
Lyons’s direction, on the other hand, has its share of ingenious moments. Set in a hotel room equipped with wicked eavesdropping acoustics, the sinister public relations plot emanates from Paul’s magical briefcase, from which his cronies make furtive entrances and exits. Too bad this freewheeling imagination wasn’t lavished on the characters. A few distinctly credible voices would have added some pop to Lyons’s familiar cultural critique.