Lite As Air

Written by Jonathan Kalb on . Posted in Posts, Theater.

Lite As Air
spectacles are closer to the American heart than that of the professional famous
person. Celebrity-worship is our culture’s vernacular faith, and (as the
sociologist C. Wright Mills once said) our star system is the inevitable result
of making a fetish out of competition. We venerate people who have done
remarkable things, to be sure, but we don’t let the scarcity of such people
deprive us of the pleasure of venerating. Perpetually inventing stars out of
thin air (and thereby degrading heroism) gives us the illusion that gloves-off
competition really is a stimulus to community, not just to rapacity and isolation–that
the few lucky winners in our winner-take-all game really can bring us meaningfully
together, and perhaps reflect starlight on us, if we just seize the precious
opportunities to take proper notice of them.

I remember feeling inchoate
disgust, even as a child, at this sort of manufactured general reverence that
presumed to include me–at "applause" lights, laugh tracks, the
empty-headed, face-lifted losers posing as winners on tv shows like Truth
or Consequences
and Hollywood Squares. The show that most clarified
my feelings on this score recently, though, was live–Sandra Bernhard’s
I’m Still Here Damn It!, which ran at the Booth Theater on Broadway
last year.

Not yet face-lifted (I assume),
the notoriously angry Bernhard–her legit acting career uninspiring since
The King of Comedy
–is a talented singer, as demonstrated in I’m
Still Here
and her previous solo show Without You I’m Nothing.
Unfortunately, she lacks the original sparkle, or perhaps the dedication, to
become a big recording star despite her unperfect looks (read: big nose), like
Barbra, and she has consequently taken aim at an ersatz stardom of spite. Using
her perceived professional rejection as comic material, she now presents herself
as a sneering, stand-up critic of the system that purportedly hurt her–an
utterly false and pathetic pose that tries to pass off crypto-gayness as cutting-edge
feminism and squanders her fine intelligence on bitchy little backbiting gossip
about celebrities whose acquaintance she’s obviously proud of.

When I first saw the pretentious,
self-satisfied tude in the press releases for Barry Humphries’ Dame
Edna: The Royal Tour
, now playing at the Booth Theater–"It is
well known that Dame Edna is arguably the most popular and gifted woman in the
world today…"–the pang of nausea I felt was familiar. Here, it seemed,
was an Australian Bernhard in drag trading on the same pseudo-intellectual,
trend-conscious spite-comedy conceived as vengeance for the slights of youth,
serving up the same sad, self-cannibalizing triviality posing as savvy culture

I was most cheered to find
out that Dame Edna isn’t disgusting. There are Bernhardish elements in
her, and I’m not convinced she’s as profound as John Lahr makes her
out to be in his 242-page 1992 book Dame Edna Everage and the Rise of Western
(which I picked up and read with pleasure after the show),
but I was unexpectedly drawn in by her poise and the extent to which she relies
on skillful negotiation of dangerously unpredictable audience interaction. Name-dropping
is added here as spice, almost as an afterthought. Edna is, thankfully, a precise
and polished clown act that–no matter what you may think of her jokes or
lightweight politics–convinces you that Humphries is actually famous for
a reason.

Dame Edna is the most prominent
of Humphries’ many alter egos. She has been a pop-culture icon in Britain
and Australia since the 1950s while remaining relatively obscure in the United
States. (A previous show, Housewife/Superstar, closed quickly Off-Broadway
in 1977.) To help the New York audience get hip fast, Dame Edna: The Royal
begins with video clips dating back almost 40 years that first show
the dowdy housewife character he originally invented to ridicule the dullness
and ignorance that nearly suffocated him as a child in Melbourne. Then the clips
progress to the garishly glamorous, utterly self-absorbed matron he currently
plays, with her double chin, butterfly glasses and lavender bouffant hair, holding
court in an astonishing array of prestigious and exclusive places while rubbing
elbows with the likes of Robin Williams, Sean Connery, Roseanne Arnold and Charlton

Meanwhile, an announcer
prepares the audience for Edna’s special brand of mock-infantilization
by offering absurdly basic explanations of what to expect during the evening:
"Dame Edna attracts a nice type of person, whereas other Broadway shows
may not… Actors are sometimes obliged to perform when they can’t obtain
work in television." These statements imply that anyone who would come
see Edna is probably a hopeless couch potato, which provides a hint of the double-edged
nature of her aggressive charm. At once thoroughly malicious and unfailingly
gracious, she’s such a perfect hostess that most people don’t care
that they’re being insulted.

There is no story line to
the show (for this reason it’s "perfect for senior citizens,"
she says, "no plot you can lose"). She simply enters onto the elegant
stage–an ornate, curving stairway beside a white piano with a huge flower
arrangement, set into receding cutouts of giant, bejeweled crowns–and visits
with the audience for two and a quarter hours. "I feel bonded to you,"
she says, "I don’t think of you as an audience. More like a focus
group." Occasionally she sings, dances like a football player and tells
stories, but mostly she asks questions of selected spectators and riffs scathingly
on their responses. The sharpest barbs are followed with statements like, "I
mean that in a loving, caring way." At one point she adds, "I was
born with a priceless gift: the ability to laugh at the misfortunes of others."

Thus, the spectators in
the balcony are "paupers" who are ever so nicely told not to expect
more eye contact from the star than their ticket price justifies. Those in box
seats who speak back to her are dubbed "parakeets," those who don’t
"mutes," and both groups are abused mercilessly from then on. The
night I attended, a woman in the orchestra said she lived in a rowhouse in Astoria
and was then asked: "Are you sure you’re in the right seat?"
Another woman, nicely dressed, was invited up to the stage with her friend for
a meal (a real one) and greeted with: "Napkin, I think. We don’t want
any more stains on that frock." The "guest" never smiled again,
to the audience’s immeasurable amusement.

Some jokes obviously inserted
for New York did leave me wondering whether Edna’s political edge is sharper
when she appears in London or Melbourne. "Who came by taxi?" she asks,
for instance, calling for a show of hands: "Lovely, you must know the Arabic
for ‘Booth.’" The Oriental sequin dress she wears in the second
act is "a tribute to Woody Allen’s mother-in-law. [Pause for effect.]
Think about that for a moment." Occasionally, in other words, one senses
that she thinks her political incorrectness is more dangerous and hard-hitting
than it is. Moreover, there’s conspicuous evasiveness in the fact that
all her live targets are women or the elderly. (Perhaps, it occurred to me,
Humphries fears that swipes at the vanity of younger men might provoke unfunny
aggression, rooted in homophobia, and this might be dangerous for Edna, or might
force her to respond directly, possibly threatening her mass appeal. In any
case, says Lahr, Humphries isn’t gay.)

There are enough jokes that
do hit home, though. Edna’s good friend the Queen, for instance, keeps
getting the theater’s name wrong: "the Oswald Theater…the Hinkley
Theater…the Squeaky Fromme." And, anyway, what ultimately holds one’s
attention is less the content than the meticulous delivery–the low falsetto
voice with its occasional dulcet belches, the priceless twisted-mouth grimaces
that accompany every punchline, the leggy stances, extravagantly clumsy hopping
dances and horrisonant crooning that turn all her songs into fantastically odd
spectacles of maladroit virtuosity. Dame Edna, in the end, is a deserving celebrity
who is unthinkable apart from the tradition of empty celebrity–a picture
of pure competitiveness dressed up as loving mother, who allows us to laugh
off our rapacious cynicism or stare it in the berouged face, depending on our

An Experiment with
an Air Pump

Shelagh Stephenson
Theater Club,

131 W. 55th St. (betw. 6th & 7th Aves.),

581-1212, through Dec. 12.

Artists who have not
yet found their own voices or styles often devote great energy to copying the
voices and styles of their heroes from the past. Less often–since it’s
more likely to be held against them–they copy from living, contemporary
heroes, convinced that authentic sympathy of spirit makes all questions of originality
foolish and irrelevant.

British playwright Shelagh
Stephenson seems to me precisely this sort of artist. The Memory of Water,
her first play, produced by Manhattan Theater Club last year, was basically
a feeble copy of Beth Henley: siblings coming together for their mother’s
funeral and revisiting old dysfunctions and tensions. Now An Experiment with
an Air Pump
, her next play, could be called Tom Stoppard-lite: the situation
of Arcadia (alternating scenes set in two eras, with cross-cast actors,
in which both famous and unknown people around the turn of the 19th century
provide clues to a mystery set in the present day) dumbed down to serve as a
vehicle for much simpler questions about science and morality.

Air Pump is not an
awful play. In fact, the production directed by Doug Hughes is crisp and sweet,
sustained by a seven-member cast whose only weak link (Ana Reeder) is about
to be replaced. Moreover, the work itself is engaging and even contains a few
passages of lovely writing that suggest Stephenson might be worth following
after all. The primary challenge for a derivative writer, I suppose, is to choose
the right heroes.