Natural Born Theater

One of the best plays this year tackles the funny topic of sex and violence

It's no myth that one of the first constitutional rights for which U.S. settlers fought after freedom of speech was the right to bear arms. Americans have an undeniable fascination (indeed, a love affair) with the gun as phallus -- an insatiable attraction to the romance of the Bonnie and Clyde rampage. As British writer Ben Elton's script Popcorn,now playing at GableStage, might imply, when you boil down the USA's highflying values of free speech and rugged individualism, what you really get are some violence-prone scalawags who say, "I want my woman, I want my piece of God's green earth, and I want the right to blow to kingdom come any motherfucker who messes with it." Elton (famous in Britain for his sardonic social representations such as the ones depicted in the sitcom The Young Ones) reminds us that gun-toting Americans are not just lyrical, misunderstood country folk like Mickey and Mallory Knox of Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers. How long can these icons claim to be caught in the crossfire of primal instinct and the moral paralysis produced by rapid TV gunfire? Leave it to our self-loathing brethren on the other side of the Atlantic to remind us that we are not misunderstood giants. We truly are Neanderthals. God save the queen!

Elton's well-wrought story and hilariously Hollywood script are reminders that comedy often is more thought-provoking than tragedy. Hollywood screenwriter Bruce Delamitri (Bob Rogerson) and his violent flicks are the talk of Tinseltown, because they have inspired two real-life copycat killers, Wayne and Scout (played by Paul Tei and Claire Tyler), to go on a shooting spree. (The media, of course, has given them a catchy moniker: the Mall Murderers.) Bruce's films boast the postmodern juxtaposition of genitalia and semiautomatic weapons that made Natural Born Killers a box-office smash in 1994 and incited an already heated debate over the relationship between violence on the screen and violence on the streets. More than just slightly reminiscent of Mickey and Mallory (played by Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis in the movie), the characters in Bruce's movies are erotic with a capital EROS. Accompanied by phenomenal soundtracks and otherworldly special effects, they act on pure instinct, and they do it without getting ugly.

Wayne and Scout, on the other hand, are the real thing. To date they have murdered 57 people. With their luck running out and the electric chair in sight, they hijack Bruce as he's about to score with Playboy centerfold/wannabe actress Brooke Daniels (Tracey Barrow). After kidnapping Bruce, Brooke, Bruce's soon-to-be­ex-wife (Sandra Ives), and his daughter (Jennifer Lehr), Wayne insists Bruce declare on national television that his movies are the cause of Wayne and Scout's killing spree, in order to get them off the hook. Citing trial-by-TV law cases such as Lorena Bobbitt, O.J. Simpson, and the cops who were videotaped beating Rodney King, he explains to Bruce's vehement objections: "Bruce, man, the law's fucking Play-Doh."

Say it loud, say it proud: The movies made them do it!
Say it loud, say it proud: The movies made them do it!

Where Bruce's slick erotic characters leave off, Wayne and Scout enter rude, crude, and amoral minus the Trent Reznor soundtrack. Think synthetic leather, bellybutton grease, and tattoos (Wayne has one on his arm that reads: Think). The success of Popcorn is not found in epiphany but rather in its succinct characterization, ballsy social commentary, and humor. And the keen direction of Joe Adler saves what otherwise might simply be a stereotypical depiction of white trash. Wayne and Scout never lose their verisimilitude as individuals. They possess the right combination of ignorance and street smarts to keep them interesting.

This season Paul Tei has shown his adept skill for characterization, having already played murderer-sociopath Richard Loeb in the New Theatre's production of Never the Sinner. As Wayne, Tei throws testosterone into everything and makes his performance lusty, raw, explosive, and show-stealing. Wayne knows when he's being patronized and knows to call it that. He knows the difference between the literal and the figurative. When Bruce defends his cinematic psychos as being merely fictional, Wayne returns with the postmodern assertion: "Just because a character is fictitious doesn't mean it doesn't exist." He knows Bruce's films aren't to blame for the mess he's in, but he also knows they may just get him off the hook. And the comedy surrounding their debate makes you think he just might be right. Wayne taunts Bruce: "Did you ever hear of a guy named Pavlov and his little dog?" Smart, punchy lines like this make Popcorn a fast-moving drama where comedy rules and laughter unearths probing questions.

Scout reels off her own brand of National Enquirer/TV Guide savvy. She knows the difference between homophobic and hemophiliac. She also knows her sociopolitical commentary, informing Bruce that "half of America is living in hell for the entertainment of the other half." But Wayne and Scout never seem to be mouthpieces for the writer's opinions. Thankfully one is never 100 percent sure what the writer's opinion is. While the commentary is biting, we never feel as though it is all leading to some predictable sociocultural theory. Wayne and Scout's ingenuity has obviously been derived from hours of TV watching and supermarket-checkout-line reading. They are not victims of their society, but they are aware enough to be victims when it's convenient for them.

In actions that are more comical than sexy, Wayne and Scout stop to declare their undying love in a frenzy of pelvis grinding and neck biting in the play's most volatile moments. Claire Tyler projects such simultaneous displays of lust and aggression so convincingly that the connection between sex and violence seems undeniable. At the same time she is childlike. While Wayne launches into a diatribe, she fidgets and giggles, snapping her gum like an overanxious cheerleader. The enthusiasm she and Wayne have for murder and their own fame is darkly naive and funny.

True to Hollywood form, Bob Rogerson as Bruce is a chameleon mix of artistic integrity and sellout politics. He vacillates from the tortured misunderstood artist to big-spending husband, father, and asshole to indignant liberal, defending his rights of free speech. When he finally wins an Academy Award, he gives the most effusive bootlicking speech known to man, and when he grasps the statue he had formerly scoffed at, he shouts victoriously: "You're mine now, you little eunuch!"

Because of the class differences between Bruce and his kidnappers, the set is crucial, and Rich Simone does not disappoint. Modern lines and stucco, the bar for entertaining, glass table for coke snorting, and Italian leather couch for wannabe-actress defrocking all make for the perfect Beverly Hills home­cum­bachelor pad. It's also the perfect place for undeniably Hollywood-brat wisecracks from daughter Velvet (Lehr), who informs her father that no matter how much of a jerk he is, "You're still emotionally relevant to me." The four-panel faux Warhol featuring Bruce adds a nice visual touch to the parody.

Popcorn uses TV screens on stage to reveal clips from Bruce's movies and in later scenes the televised kidnapping of Bruce and company. This creates a sharp contrast between the anesthetizing glare of the screen and the pulse and sweat of real life on the stage. "It's the Wayne and Scout village," Scout yells triumphantly when an underwear-clad camera crew arrives. What we realize from seeing their drama unfold on the screens is that, despite the astronomical budgets and special effects of film, the best home for Popcorn is the stage. Although the gunshots don't sound as real on stage, the action is much edgier -- from Brooke's quirky striptease to Wayne's violent outbursts -- and we realize this by watching both stage and screen versions simultaneously. Adler as director has managed to do something that should be an inspiration to all: He has made the genre relevant by giving it a context. Popcorn is a success because it's good theater, but it's also a success simply because it is theater. This is an achievement that few South Florida theaters strive to accomplish and is crucial for those who want to bring in new and younger audiences. Lucky for us this comedy has found a home at GableStage. If I could send potential theatergoers (especially those under age 40) to one play this year, it would be Popcorn.

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