Nicky Silver’s New One’s No Good; Reverend Billy’s Is

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

The Altruists
By Nicky Silver
Silver, who became an Off-Broadway sensation in the mid-1990s with such stylishly
perverse plays as The Food Chain, Pterodactyls and Raised in
, is turning out to be the textbook case of arrested adolescence
in American playwriting. Two years ago, I was inclined to overlook the clumsy
contrivances in his psychologically flimsy The Maiden’s Prayer,
because I thought I saw him reaching for a new level of comic seriousness via
a conventional realism he couldn’t really handle. His The Eros Trilogy
last year, though–two thirds of which was recycled from his 1991 play Free
Will & Wanton Lust
–was a discouraging return to his familiar glib
and affectedly quirky skimming of neurotic surfaces, and his new play The
is more of the same. One wonders, if he’s really going to
spend his entire career poking at life with a dandyish verbal walking stick
rather than developing any truly intimate or ruminative relationship to it,
why he doesn’t just go write for tv.

Straw figure one is Ronald
(Joey Slotnick), a homely, gay, do-good social worker from a wealthy family,
who never stops talking about himself long enough to let anyone get a word in
edgewise, including those he’s bent on helping. Straw figure two is Ethan
Swallow (Sam Robards), a leather-jacketed hooligan whose radicalism seems to
stem from the sexual and partying opportunities political rallies offer, and
who shamelessly sponges off his rich girlfriend ("Firebombs don’t
grow on trees"). Straw figure three is Cybil (Kali Rocha), an angry, pigtailed
Larchmont kid-turned-activist who can’t remember what she’s protesting,
and who insists she’s a lesbian but keeps having sex with men (most recently
Ethan). And straw figure four is Sydney (Veanne Cox), Ronald’s sister and
Ethan’s girlfriend, a stick-thin, frenetically peppy soap actress in shocking
pink, who hates leftists and likes Times Square better since it was Disneyfied,
and rants for more than 10 minutes to that effect at a motionless, covered figure
on the bed. Sydney is Silver’s nod to political fairness, and her ranting
at the bed is also the closest the play comes to memorable humor. The plot turns
on various drolly unromantic sexual encounters, the accidental killing of Cybil’s
abusive lover Audrey by Sydney, and the cynical decision by all four straw figures
to pin the crime on Lance (Eddie Cahill)–a pretty hustler Ronald picked
up at the Ramrod, assuming he’d really connected emotionally with him.
The cheap predictability of this decision ruins the comic potential of the figure-in-the-bed
gag, and also leaves the actors, in this harried production directed by David
Warren, looking desperate to rise above the deadly sketchiness of their characters
and the play’s trite and simplistic moral that people are nothing but posturing,
selfish liars. Two of the actors have spotty success at this: Cox, during the
brief calms in Sydney’s distended panic attack, and Cahill, after Lance
(the only character conceived with any compassion) decides to accept Ronald’s
offer of help. The other performers can do little more than gamely try not to
drown in the confused torrent of spite and compulsive cleverness pouring from
their mouths.

Vineyard Theater, 108 E.
15th St. (betw. Union Sq. E. & Irving Pl.), 353-0303, through April 8.

Momma, I
Been Dot Commed
Reverend Billy
an antidote to Silver’s compassion-exhaustion, I suggest a visit to one
of the remaining Sunday-night comic church services by Reverend Billy at the
Salon Theater, directed by Tony Torn. With the 300-seat house packed to overflow
on March 5 in the wake of the Times "Arts and Leisure" article about
the reverend the previous week (written by yours truly), the first of his four
shows, Momma, I Been Dot Commed, was an unprecedented scene for an artist
who (before the success of his "Millennium’s Neighborhood" festival
in December) usually drew crowds of 25 to 50. The main question for the Salon
evenings was how to adapt his act to scaled-up circumstances, including postperformance
excursions into public spaces to commit political actions. This was accomplished
with admirable humor and ingenuity.

For those who tuned in late,
Reverend Billy, Minister of the Church of Stop Shopping, is a character developed
by the actor and monologist Bill Talen in the mid 1990s as a vehicle for social
activism. After preaching regularly on the sidewalk outside the Times Square
Disney Store, Talen graduated to anticonsumerist "preach ins" and
political actions inside the store, leading to several arrests, and then to
solo shows in theaters around town. During the past year, he has also returned
to his old role of impresario (for seven years, he was co-artistic director
of the San Francisco alternative theater Life On the Water), finding himself
at the center of a remarkable conflux of local grassroots causes. Lately, diverse
community groups have been seeking his support as they might that of an actual
spiritual leader.

Each of the comic church
services this month is cosponsored by a different group or groups and is dedicated
to a particular theme. That of March 5 was the "dot-comming" of the
neighborhood around the Salon Theater (where Talen happens to live), but the
crux of the evening was still, as in his previous solo shows, the extraordinary
relationship he builds with his typically cool, downtown audience members. More
numerous than usual on this occasion, the crowd seemed just as eager as his
regular followers to make the leap from laughing at a parody-televangelist to
exploring the edges of real belief beyond endless cleverness. As a properly
administered placebo is, under certain circumstances, more effective than medicine,
so is a phony preacher sometimes more inspirational and comforting than a real

The effectiveness of Talen’s
act depends on maintaining a tricky balance between slickness and deliberate
ineptitude, between the knowingly fake and the real, and this is especially
tricky to apply to other performers. He and Torn nevertheless incorporated a
nine-member comic gospel choir, four musicians and a handful of fake "deacons,"
who greeted spectators with toothpaste-ad grins and walked around asking to
hear confessions of "shopping sins." The choir, dressed in bright
blue robes and ridiculous, ill-fitting wigs, sang antishopping spirituals (with
one singer, Derrick McGinty, splitting off for powerful solos) and also sat
at the back beneath crucified Mickey and Minnie Mouse dolls encouraging Billy
to "tell it" and "take your time, Rev."

At one point, two choir
members rose to offer "the reading of the Word" (a steamy poem by
Walt Whitman), added "a word from the Devil" (the text of a billboard)
and then "a word from our sponsor, Walter Benjamin" (about the perpetual
distraction of people in consumer societies). That the church’s anti-faith
was not merely a new form of sloganeering was driven home when the audience
was asked to chant along with a series of "We believe…" statements
printed in the program, which all made perfect sense but grew steadily longer,
more complex and unchantable. ("We believe in the god that people who don’t
believe in god–believe in." "We believe that massive quantities
of emptiness are delivered at the speed of light to great crowds of stunned
people who need violence to–focus their eyes." "We believe in
saying your first name as we look in your eye and let your first name and the
gaze just keep going with that sensuality that a kind of friendship can have
whether we make love or not and we believe that we won’t let that gaze
be snapped off by–‘Excuse me I’ve got to take this call.’")

Several anticonsumerist
"saints" (representatives of the Lower East Side Collective and Rtmark)
were "canonized." An attractive female choir member possessed by a
"shopping demon" was exorcised–a strenuous process involving
surreptitious humping that caused the reverend to lose his clerical collar.
The audience also happily waved their credit cards in the air "like fields
of wheat," though many disappeared back into pockets and wallets when the
reverend shouted, "We will now demagnetize them!" (He accomplished
this by waving his tux jacket at them.)

All this was fun and new,
but the high point, as always, was the reverend’s own sermon–a remarkable
fusillade of hilarious and penetrating observations, exhortations, images, gestures
and expressions, this time about the blight of corporate advertising in his
once-individualistic neighborhood, which I won’t even try to paraphrase.
(The sermon is different each week.) The evening’s few technical glitches
were quickly forgotten–a half-hour delay due to set-up problems, a malfunctioning
paint-ball slingshot during the postshow billboard-destruction–and the
pumped-up crowd was still largely intact and chatting among themselves 20 minutes
afterward, blocks from the theater.

Late-breaking follow-up:
a few days after this show, the NYPD, citing an ordinance of the Environmental
Control Board, served the Church of Stop Shopping with $10,000 in fines (one
hundred $100 summonses) for putting up posters in downtown neighborhoods to
advertise its shows.

The Salon Theater, 45 Bleecker
St. (at Lafayette St.), 982-3899, through March 26.