Theater archives

Puff and Stuff: The Last Smoker in America


Librettist Bill Russell has skill and, at times, a jauntily inventive wit, demonstrated in previous musicals like Side Show and Elegies for Angels, Punks, and Raging Queens. Composer Peter Melnick has a melodic gift, harmonic craft, and, less luckily for himself, a brilliant knack for pastiche, all displayed in his previous Off-Broadway outing, Adrift in Macao. A Russell-Melnick collaboration, The Last Smoker in America (Westside Theater), aims to be a future-shock dystopian satire, full of rowdy fun and contemporary relevance. Regrettably, as directed with a relentlessly heavy hand by Andy Sandberg, the show’s fun is all noise, its relevance is all facile, and its would-be satire of a future where cigarette possession is punishable by death amounts, though I hate saying so, to nothing but smoke and mirrors.

The sadness is that Russell and Melnick have labored so hard to make an 85-minute evening of what could, at best, have sustained a 10-minute sketch, padded out with a parodic song or two. Russell’s story depicts a cheery, antique-sitcom-style suburban home, where Ernie (John Bolton) has virtuously quit smoking. To make his wife, Pam (Farah Alvin), do likewise, he has installed an obnoxious talking smoke alarm, all flashing lights and Draconian warnings. (Practically everything else on Charlie Corcoran’s frenetically hyperactive set also lights up, flips open, or explodes. This set needs Ritalin.)

But Pam still craves that morning drag on her cig. Who can blame her? Her unemployed hubby hides in the basement, writing unsalable garage-band rock songs. Their son (Jake Boyd) lives for gaming and imagines himself a gangsta rapper. Her only companion is the burbly, officiously p.c. person of color next door (Natalie Venetia Belcon), who, being a person of color, gets to supply the inevitable gospel anthem for the show’s one-from-each-category song plot. It’s called, inevitably, “Let the Lord Be Your Addiction.”

Yes, the notion is funny. And the laugh you got out of reading it just now, like the other laughs inherent in the show’s conception, lasts exactly as long as it takes to articulate the notion. Once you’ve phrased the title, there’s no need to write the song. Attempting to follow the characters through the hopelessly rickety plot takes effort; attempting to find even 15 minutes’ worth of empathy for them, amid all the shouting and clatter, could cause total exhaustion. The four actors, unyieldingly energetic, give the material their all, which might be a tad too much.