Some shows don’t have a hair out of place but the next day slither out of your brain like rain on a waterproof coat. And then there are the shambolic productions that are memorable rather than technically perfect — as is the case with the New Saloon company’s loose, zany Cute Activist, produced by the Bushwick Starr (in association with Clubbed Thumb) and playing there until early February. Milo Cramer’s play is a window into a millennial mindscape that’s a jumble of arrogance and confusion, idealism and aimlessness — all placed against a dense thematic background that involves gentrification, gender roles, and worker exploitation. There are singing animals, too.
The unwitting poster child for her generation is 26-year-old Jen (the wonderful Madeline Wise, bringing to mind a young Allison Janney), an architect we meet on an awkward first date at a restaurant with Gil (Ronald Peet), who’s a little younger but not all that impressed by Jen’s achievements. Cramer’s dialogue comes fast and furious — by the time a line registers, five more have rushed by — and is often very funny, as when Gil, after Jen asks whether he’s gay, answers, “No, I just work really hard to seem nonthreatening.” Jen is so focused on herself (can you blame her? She attended a kindergarten with a 6 percent admission rate) that she doesn’t seem to even want the date. She’s not only sarcastic with Gil, but also brusque with the restaurant’s waiter (Annie Henk) and manager (Elizabeth Kenny).
It turns out Henk and Kenny’s characters (who are also lovers) are being threatened by a greedy, evil developer (David Greenspan) who goes simply by Landlorde and runs the little Connecticut town where the show is set. Jen, meanwhile, happens to design skyscrapers for Landlorde, which makes her into an unwitting accomplice in his eviction schemes. That is, until a mouse sings a prophecy that Jen must join the local activist group; lo and behold, she then finds herself in the mysterious Cave of Bone, where the resistance holds its meetings. The masked crusaders argue about their tactics, agenda (which involves fighting Landlorde), and, of course, process (“I resent the expectation that I will help pay for snacks I never asked for,” barks one attendee). The whole thing is halfway between Scooby-Doo and a social-justice version of The Office.
Cramer and the director, Morgan Green, throw everything in their theatrical pot, including video, songs, and puppets — the lattermost used to portray the mouse and also a deer, in a welcome magical-realist touch. In this land of too much, scenes end abruptly or go on past their seeming end-time, and the humor has a tendency to rely on flip, rat-a-tat speed. But at least Cramer’s satire has heart, and there is something to be said for a show packed with surprises when some Broadway juggernauts struggle to come up with a couple.
Wise, a co-founder of New Saloon with Cramer and Green, effortlessly dominates the cast with her deadpan. By the end, you’ll especially wish she had more scenes with the terrific Greenspan; fully recovered from his nearly six-hour-long solo ascent of O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, this most idiosyncratic of actors is a droll riot as a becaped meanie whose every move is accompanied by a sound effect of clicking spurs (at least, I think that’s what it was). Greenspan was also in New Saloon’s previous show Minor Character: Six Translations of Uncle Vanya at the Same Time (which mashed up different versions of the Chekhov play, including one done through Google Translate), and it’s wonderful to continue to see him mesh with this new company.
A word, at last, about where this is all happening. It’s hard to understate the joy of seeing a show — of seeing this show — at the Bushwick Starr, theater’s answer to the rock club where you caught your favorite band before it got big. The venue has been on a roll over the past few years, presenting productions that keep on keeping on: Dave Malloy’s Ghost Quartet had a run there before an encore at New York Theatre Workshop’s annex, Next Door at NYTW; the Mad Ones’ Miles for Mary is currently being reprised at Playwrights Horizons; and Kate Benson’s [Porto] transfers to the WP at the end of the month. Cute Activist may or may not follow in their footsteps, but it surely won’t be the last we’ve heard from New Saloon.