POSTED ON APRIL 9, 2008:
A Fatal Mistake
Theatre Tulsa's newest production pairs bad timing with really, really bad jokes
Laugh riot? Jon lied on thier tax returns and claimed they were married to save some money, so now, in order to fool the tax man, Leslie must pretend to be his wife and dress up like a woman.
Let's say you're trying to watch a video on the Internet. You click play, and the file starts streaming from its host.
Unfortunately, whatever program the site used to digitize its content has mucked up the audio, which now runs about a half second ahead of the video. People are saying things before their mouths move, sound effects play before they're supposed to go off and the soundtrack's completely out of rhythm with the images onscreen.
You're still getting the gist of it, but having to synch up the experience in your own mind, a process that takes only microseconds, still yanks you out of whatever it was you were trying to watch. You can't get caught up in the emotional experience of anything when you're busy trying to reconcile confusing information.
So in Theatre Tulsa's production of Love, Sex and the IRS, directed by Susan Webb, when Leslie (Jarrod Kopp) tells Kate (Bonny Downs) the time has come to confess their affair to her fiancé Jon (Brian Ross), I have to stop and piece this information together myself. It takes fractions of a second, but it also takes me out of the play.
The reason I have to piece it together is because Leslie, while having told me what the situation is, has not expressed his feelings regarding it. You see, Jon and Leslie are roommates, and, as Leslie says repeatedly throughout the play, he's done a lot of things for Jon. They've been through a lot together. One would imagine they share a bond.
But right from the start, I don't know all this. All I have to go on is Leslie's emotional state during the play's opening beats.
What does his emotional state tell me? What do I see? I see a character who is eager to amuse. He's concerned, but he's not concerned about Jon. He's not even concerned about Kate. He's concerned about whether or not the things he's saying will be received with laughter.
He presses on, telling Kate about an experience he had with Jon in college, when he tried to tell him that his girlfriend was cheating on him. Leslie became so nervous that his sinuses flared up and he found himself unable to speak.
He rushes through this information, unconcerned with his own emotional relationship to this story. He's much more concerned with the punch lines at the end, a series of medical and physiological hyperboles about his inability to speak while nervous. And he hits each of the punch lines.
But a punch doesn't have much power unless it's got a little wind-up to it. An awareness of the character's emotional reality is key in theatrical comedy, and especially in farce.
Farce is often loud, slapstick, extremely physical, yet it is the most delicate of comedic forms. It needs careful pacing and emotional fidelity to keep it steady. These tools are like the chains connected to a bicycle's pedals. Without them, a farce just spins, fruitlessly.
Sadly, this production has little emotional reality. It's just punch line after punch line. The characters don't really care about one another, and the stakes remain low.
Which is fine. That's a choice. There's no rule anywhere that says actors in a play must answer a series of questions about their character, filling out artificial histories like tax forms. But until they do, they'll just be wheels, free-floating, attached to nothing, spinning and spinning.
It's a light irony that Mr. Spinner (Ron Friedberg) is one of the few characters whose actor seems to have done some reflection on his emotional reality. Mr. Spinner is the tax agent who audits the two roommates. In order to fool him, Jon and Leslie liquor him up and invite him to stay for dinner. Spinner gets progressively drunker as the play progresses, and therefore more jovial and magnanimous.
As he says in the play, he's a lonely man who, as an IRS agent, is rarely treated with respect, let alone friendliness. Friedberg's as loud and boisterous as the other actors, but because that behavior is coming from a more fully explored emotional space, it's more enjoyable to watch.
Liz Masters, as Jon's mother Vivian, sallies up genuine disgust for her son's behavior. I'm not sure why she puts up with as much as she does, though. I don't know what she wants, and therefore what she does for most of the play doesn't make any sense to me.
Sara Wilemon as Leslie's (other) girlfriend Connie is a surprising late addition to the production. Connie has tunnel vision. Because she's only able to follow one track at a time, she's easily distracted. Wilemon plays this well, allowing herself to be duped by one lie after another, and pursuing her goal (which changes moment to moment) with dogged intent.
Dale Sams, who recently offered an evocative performance in Down in the Ol' Hole at the Nightingale Theater, chews the scenery here. In Hole, he played a sinister antagonist, half-shaman and half-businessman, whose extravagant behavior had reality and depth to it. In IRS, his beats are as clear as before, but lacking in that former depth.
Downs, as Kate, makes some odd emotional choices. As Mr. Spinner becomes more inebriated, he makes increasingly overt passes at her, until finally he chases her around the living room. Here, and in a few similar situations, even though her lines and physicality seemed to communicate a forceful, stern rejection, Downs smiles. If it was an intentional choice, it was an odd one. If it wasn't, I hope she's not breaking character because Friedberg's performance is making her laugh.
Finally, I have to question the choice of this play.
Not only is the text devoid of any valuable emotional, intellectual or moral content, but it's also insidiously homophobic.
(Oh, by the way, Jon lied on their tax returns and claimed they were married to save some money, so now, in order to fool the tax man, Leslie must pretend to be his wife and dress up like a woman. Laugh riot.)
Most gay Americans were still closeted 30 years ago, around the time of the play's original publication, so I can understand how the playwrights, Billy Van Zandt and Jane Milmore, could make the mistake of conflating homosexuality with transvestitism; it's easy to misunderstand what you don't often encounter. That doesn't make the gay sex jokes anything more than immature or less than spiteful.
I also understand, though I find it less excusable, how casually one could make a joke during that period about HIV being strictly a homosexual's disease. When Connie discovers Leslie is dressing up like a woman, Jon neglects to tell her about the tax scheme and instead chooses to deceive her. He tells her the change is permanent.
"Is it fatal?" she asks.
He replies, "Only in a few rare cases."
What I find inexcusable is that, 30 years later, this play still seems like a positive addition to a theatrical season. It's as if someone at Theatre Tulsa said, "You know what we need in our community? More homophobia."
Even if nobody said that (and I'm sure they didn't), everyone in a production needs to be aware of how the play fits into the larger communal picture. None of us are doing theater in a bubble. Actors need to engage each other's emotions, to be honest with one another. Production companies need to be honest about what they're offering the community.
And critics need to be honest, too. Unless you're desperate for some cheap laughs, you needn't bother with Love, Sex and the IRS.
Love, Sex and the IRS runs April 10-12, 8pm, in the Liddy Doenges Theatre of the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, 110 E. 2nd St. For tickets and other information, visit www.theatretulsa.org or call 587-8402.
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