Dearth of a Nation


“Luxury,” bemoans the upstanding Colonel Manly, the hero of Royall Tyler’s 1787 comedyThe Contrast, “is surely the bane of a nation. [It] enervates both soul and body, opening a thousand new sources of enjoyment, and opens also a thousand new sources of contention and want.” Since the Revolutionary War, Manly argues, these United States have fallen into decadence and license. Where once we threw tea into the harbor, we now drink it out of china cups, pinkies extended. “Oh,” he cries, “that America, oh, that my country would, in this her day, learn the things that belong to her peace!”

If screwmachine/eyecandy, playwright C.J. Hopkins’s latest indictment of American crassness and overconsumption, serves as any indication, our country hasn’t learned much since manly Manly spoke some centuries ago. Hopkins’s sharp-toothed satire takes place on the set of the television spectacular The Big Bob Show. Each week, middle-American married couples attempt trivia questions and undertake inane challenges posed by the show’s oleaginous host, “America’s ambassador of culture,” Big Bob (David Calvitto, resplendent in razor-sharp widow’s peak and double-breasted sports coat). In this week’s episode, Dan and Maura Brown (Bill Coelius and Nancy Walsh), “just your average, normal, regular people,” are playing to win stuff, lots of stuff, “a vast assortment of valuable consumer products.”

Though they have some difficulty deciphering the rules of the game, the Browns endeavor to answer all of Bob’s questions, even as those questions increasingly confuse and degrade them. Indeed, Big Bob soon dispenses with any pretense of civility or competition. With the aid of his lovely assistant Vera (a statuesque James Cleveland), Big Bob attacks the Browns with their credulity, their greed, and finally, a very stout stick. Figuratively, Hopkins wields a stout stick as well. He doesn’t trade much in subtlety or slant, preferring to bash away at his targets head-on.

Hopkins presents a dystopia in which the desire for consumer goods and high ratings trumps all principles. “All you’re really doing here is making fun of us as if we were idiots,” Dan complains to Big Bob. Of course, Dan admits, “I could understand if it’s for entertainment purposes.” Then Vera wallops him again. Screwmachine/eyecandy, under John Clancy’s hypomanic direction, certainly does entertain. All the performers—Calvitto especially—spit out their lines in Clancy’s speedy, semiautomatic style. If Hopkins’s script rarely surprises, it does satisfy as it takes the scenario to its inevitable and absurd conclusion, which features screams, tears, head wounds, several toasters, and Bob’s sweaty, Solomonic utterance, delivered to the audience, that humankind has spent “thousands of years all struggling towards this one great goal—to this, to us.”

The characters of The Contrast struggle as well, though without nearly so much stage blood as those of screwmachine. Just after the Revolution, America’s young men and women must negotiate the new-minted mores of their nation. In this Sheridan-esque comedy—which stands as the first play by an American ever professionally performed—the execrable Charlotte, Laetitia, and the odious Mr. Dimple spurn American homespun for European frippery, while Maria and Colonel Manly prefer patriotism and simple decency. Nearly 220 years after its debut, director Peter Bloch of the Mirror Repertory Company puts a youngish cast through the comedy’s rather mannered paces.

The play doesn’t lack for humor or relevance, but rather than treating it to the streamlining it requires, Bloch presents it in its near entirety, relying on elaborate costumes and lengthy bits of business to pick up the considerable slack. The actors approach the bulky blocks of texts and clusters of outmoded references gamely enough, but never quite inhabit the characters or language. (Though exaggeration is the order of the day, Cate Campbell as the wanton Charlotte and Jesse May as the foppish servant Jessamy have their moments, and Kyle T. Jones as Manly has not only moments but also the most glorious chin!) If Tyler has Maria, his heroine, justly condemn Dimple, “whose only virtue is a polished exterior,” Bloch ought not to imitate him.

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