The 1939 World’s Fair, held amid marshy Queens meadows, concerned itself with “Building the World of Tomorrow.” And building the world of tomorrow is just what theater company the Mad Ones did last year in their debut show, Samuel and Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War. High-concept and perilously low-budget, the play told the story of Earth menaced by genocidal droids.
If that piece looked to the future, The Tremendous Tremendous, their follow-up at the Brick Theater, locates itself firmly in the past. At the ’39 World’s Fair—an exposition that displayed midgets, a “monkey mountain,” fluorescent lights, and Vermeer’s Milkmaid—a theatrical troupe known as the Traveling Abbott Family has made a smash with an all-clown version of Romeo and Juliet. On the last night of the fair, they congregate backstage, remove their makeup, and toast their success.
Created by the cast, The Tremendous Tremendous seems more a formal experiment or pleasurable riff than an actual play. Multiple conversations occur simultaneously, and even when only a single voice dominates, the radio, the piano, or blocking distract from it. As the troupe doff their costumes and down assorted drinks, they ably create an environment, but they don’t offer narrative or plot. In Samuel and Alasdair, the fate of the whole world loomed. Here, the pressing question revolves around popcorn. Occasionally the script gestures toward more vital concerns—how did the clan’s oldest member die? How did Charlie lose his foot? What secret haunts Lucillia?—but they’re quickly dismissed.
Despite pomp, glamour, carnival rides, and a giant robot named Elektro (if only he appeared onstage!), the ’39 World’s Fair was a flop, failing to recoup its investment. There’s no need to judge this good-natured show so harshly, but it’s a useful reminder that once you’ve built a world—of tomorrow or of yesterday—you need to set it spinning.