Ethel Merman Is Dead

There is no sign of trouble upon entering the Rising Action Theatre Company's new digs on Oakland Park Boulevard. The theater is full of wood and warm light, and you feel glad that the arts have found such a lovely little home on the outskirts of Wilton Manors. Cling to that feeling for as long as you can.

If last Friday was representative, the men of Rising Action will very shortly do all they can to ruin it. Forget for a moment the awkward ticket attendant who can't quite comprehend that you're trying to give him your last name, and disregard the director's opening remark that Rising Action is all about "letting the audience know about things in society" (very important, this exploration of societal "things"). After all, nobody directs the director, and tix-taking is hard, unscripted work. There, in Rising Action's pretty little theater, you hope for better things once the play starts, and you keep hoping through much of the first act.

There are many kinds of hope in this world, and the particular strain that keeps one thinking that Rising Action might suddenly get its shit together will be familiar to anyone who's ever voted for Dennis Kucinich in a Democratic primary. It is a hope that flies in the face of reason and mounting empirical evidence and that abides more out of humanity's stubborn good nature than any real expectation. This is true from the first scene of John Kane's The 11 O'Clock Number, which finds actor David Goldyn trying and failing to look uninhibited while dancing around the stage and lip-synching badly to a show tune. Well, you figure, maybe dancing isn't his bag. Alas, it only gets worse.

Kane's play is a talky comedy about an unhappy gay theater junkie named Bobby Dupree (Goldyn) who receives a used Scrabble set for his birthday. The game once belonged to Ethel Merman. Soon, Ethel herself (Merry Jo Cortada) bursts into the room to grant Dupree's every birthday wish. He has two wishes, apparently: to bang a hot young thing named Tyler (Brandon St. John) and to become a successful Broadway composer. While Tyler and Dupree fuck like rabbits in an offstage bedroom, Merman sets about putting Dupree in touch with a canned-ham magnate named Lucille Fur (Vicky Keller) and her lawyer, Samuel Tann (Cyril Serrao), who promise to produce Dupree's work on Broadway. These bizarre events are driven by dialogue that seems culled in equal parts from '60s sex comedies like Pillow Talk and the sophisticated barbs of in-the-know cats like Noel Coward. Most of the play's many jokes involve name-dropping old Broadway legends and throwing shade their way. When Dupree and his best friend, the queenily regal Gordon Miller (David Leddick), are talking about Liza Minnelli, Miller asks how Dupree thinks Minnelli will die. "I hope she dies onstage," Dupree answers. Miller quips: "She's already done that." It's obvious that Kane wrote the question just so he could supply the answer, which is the very definition of contrivance.

Still, this kind of joke can work if properly executed. And that means "quickly." There's a well-established formula for repartee: It should be fast and free-flowing, seemingly spontaneous, with lines overlapping all over the place. The kind of high-society wit the form's progenitors dealt in was always fairly vacuous, and they understood that the only way to keep us attuned to the verbiage's superficial funniness without making us question the value of its content was to keep it hitting hard and without cease. But Kevin Dean's direction is slow. The scenes drag on and on, and it often seems that the actors are delivering their lines through some kind of opiate haze. Drugs, however, are not to blame. These actors can't remember their lines.

Not since my preadolescent stint at the Fort Lauderdale Children's Theatre have I seen a performance marred by so many obvious verbal gaffes. A great deal of this is plainly the cast's fault — Lucille and Samuel, for example, seem unable to remember who is supposed to introduce them to Miller when they first arrive onstage, and when Miller begins mouthing along to one of Dupree's many if-only-life-were-like-a-musical monologues, so as to indicate that the subject is one of Dupree's tropes, the two never seem to sync up. At other times, though, the fault may lie with the playwright. Poking fun at Dupree's budding romance with the young Tyler, Miller jokes, "Has he finished shaving yet?" I'm pretty sure he meant "started shaving yet," but who knows?

What makes the play's sluggishness all the more infuriating is how it gives you time to ponder the stunning lack of guidance Dean gave his actors on how to properly deliver those few lines they manage not to mangle. There are many right ways to say a thing, but there are many more wrong ones, and Dean seems driven to catalog them all. For example: Tyler tells Miller that he's performing in an all-male, all-nude adaptation of The Women and goes on to admit that his fellow actors aren't all that well-endowed. Miller responds by suggesting they call the play Little Women. When he says it, he puts his emphasis on the word women — as in "Perhaps they should call the play Little Women" — thereby spoiling the joke. If he had put the emphasis on little — as in Little Women — it would have made sense. In fact, emphasis is misplaced all over the map in The 11 O'Clock Number. When Miller tells Dupree that "life isn't a musical," Dupree responds by saying "Shouldn't life be more like a musical?" He puts the emphasis on musical as though it were the first use of the word in the conversation. Whatever these actors are trying to channel, it certainly isn't the flow of real, live conversation.

Too many little details are ignored at Rising Action for any reasonable person to think of them as individual freak occurrences (and that goes too for the last Rising Action production I took in, over a year ago). The fact that we can hear the actors talking backstage while their costars are trying to act; the fact that Cortada looks, sounds, and behaves nothing like Ethel Merman; the way lights are raised or lowered midscene for no reason at all; the way the recorded music cues up at the wrong moments. These aren't accidents: This is a full-blown ethos of dumbfuckery.

One moment perhaps more than any other illustrates the fuzzy thinking at the heart of Rising Action's latest floater. The morning after Dupree's birthday, Dupree is in his bathrobe, chatting with Ethel Merman. At the performance I saw, the bathrobe came undone and hung open in the front, revealing Goldyn's chest and belly and crotch (I'm not sure what he was wearing down there, because I kept my eyes firmly affixed to his face). At no point did Goldyn attempt to retie his bathrobe. Perhaps he thought doing so would be breaking character. In fact, it would have been the opposite. If you were having breakfast with Ethel Merman and your bathrobe came undone, you'd redo the thing immediately. But Goldyn didn't think that way, and the entire audience had to do its best to keep from looking at the slim line of potential full-frontal stretching from Goldyn's feet to his neck. If Goldyn were actually performing the scene — if he were trying to inhabit the persona of Bobby Dupree — he would have thought nothing of retying the robe. But he wasn't performing that scene: He was trying to get it over with. Which is more or less what Rising Action seems hell-bent on doing with the whole damned show.

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Brandon K. Thorp