note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Beverly Creasey
First of all, thanks to ZEITGEIST for bringing us three years of cutting edge theater relevant to the zeitgeist of our troubled times: plays like CHAIN, BEE-LUTHER-HATCHEE and IN THE BLOOD.
POPCORN, their current offering, inspired by Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers,” is not everyone’s cup of tea. (I like my tea a lot milder.) Playwright Ben Elton addresses the contentious question: Is an artist (a film director, for instance) responsible if a copy cat criminal murders real people? Stone, in fact, was sued by the victims of a young couple who went on a crime spree after twenty viewings of “Natural Born Killers.”
Despite the obvious references to Oliver Stone, POPCORN struck me as a replay of Charles Manson’s murderous assault on Terry Melcher’s Hollywood mansion thirty years ago. Manson and his “family” slaughtered everyone in the house, including director Roman Polansky’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate. So I’m asking the question: Can a play about cold-blooded killers be a comedy?
Elton swings from serious thriller mode to tongue-in-cheek satire to screwball comedy so quickly that I couldn’t get my bearings. And I couldn’t laugh when someone was shot…even if the person was more worried about her make-up than the gun. I’m sure you can strike a balance of ‘comic’ and ‘serious’ but Elton hasn’t achieved it in POPCORN. He writes some funny stuff in the beginning for the director who’s been nominated for an Academy Award, then the clever ‘satire’ departs when the killers arrive.
Speaking of ‘funny,’ the funniest line in the play is lifted from Sergio Leone’s “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” Come to think of it there’s a funny movie about life and death that’s well executed because the boundaries between comedy and tragedy are firmly drawn. It’s funny but never silly. That famous line: A gunman seems to have the drop on “Tuco” Benedicto Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez (Eli Wallach) because Tuco is taking a bath. The foolish gunman starts to chew out Tuco for ruining his life when Tuco shoots him with a pistol that emerges from the soapy water. Tuco says: “If you’re gonna talk, talk, If you’re gonna shoot, shoot.”
Elton even includes an epilogue reiterating his question about moral responsibility. This, after every character, including the spaced out killers, has waxed philosophical about the influence of violent television and film. And why doesn’t someone think of braining the bad guy with that Oscar when he has his back turned…or when he leaves his moll in charge of the room? (It didn’t help that the night I saw POPCORN the actors kept dropping their guns.) OK Enough about Elton.
David Miller has put together a fine cast (and a gorgeous Hollywood “chic” black & white minimalist set). George Saulnier III disappears far too soon. I hoped against hope that Elton had taken a page from Ira Levin’s “Deathtrap” so that the cocky producer could re-emerge. Stephen Epstein perfectly captures the bravado of a movie director who wants to be thought of as a “maverick.” Caryn Andrea Lindsey portrays abject terror so convincingly I had trouble watching her quiver in the corner of the room. Jennifer Huth held her own walking that tightrope between caricature and heartfelt mother (no thanks to the playwright).
It’s a pity Naeemah A. White-Peppers didn’t have more to do after her impressive opening gambit. Jesse Soursourian and Susan Gross, as the natural born killers strut like wackos but Elton keeps them talking too long. “If you’re gonna talk, talk " etc. Chris Chanayasulkit and Richard Arum are a refreshing addition, as the news crew, stripped down to their civvies (cute costumes all around by Tracy Campbell, especially the American flag skirt for Gross).