The Last Smoker in America
nytheatre.com review by Brad Lee Thomason
August 1, 2012
The very notion of being called an "addict" is quite troubling, and even the word itself has an exceptionally bad connotation in our society; and those afflicted with addiction—whether it be heroin, cocaine or in this case tobacco—are generally scorned by others for their addictions and in some cases ostracized by those closest to them. That leaves our poor "addict" to suffer through the pangs of withdrawal all alone… abandoned by those around them in their greatest hour of need.
Before I get too off track here let me remind you that The Last Smoker in America is a musical comedy, and in ninety energetic minutes four gifted performers present this full-throttle satire with a mix of rock, rap, and Jesus. The point here seems to be: everybody is addicted to something, whether it's food, coke, opium, sex, the Lord, video games, cookies, or possibly even cigarettes—which in this case is the most damnable addiction of them all.
Pam, played by Farah Alvin, tries to quit smoking, but she finds many obstacles in her way: an unemployed husband who is having an affair with their born-again neighbor; a son who thinks he is black because he's listened to a lot of rap music; and finally a mechanical device above the door that informs them of new no-smoking laws. What makes any ex-smoker want to smoke again? Make them nervous. Pam eventually capitulates, and with this comes the demise of her family and her freedom, only to come back to sing about how we all make our own choices. Hey, at least she's not on crack.
Despite the superb performances, high production value, excellent lighting and sound, and even some entertaining acrobatics and stage combat (especially from Jake Boyd as the son; he seemed to spring around the stage) this satire doesn't quite make the statement I think it wants to make. Maybe I'm wrong; maybe there was no point intended. However, it seems like these people are all extremely selfish; a mother who is willing to abandon everything and start a personal war to keep smoking, a father who is brainwashed, and a son who is too busy playing video games to notice. Some of the numbers seem contrived; not that they aren't well done—but they sometimes came out of… nowhere.
However, the ballads between Pam and her husband Ernie are especially poignant as they both reflect on their youth and how they met in a smoky bar. Those were nice times… troubling to find out now that those times were actually killing them. Played by John Bolton, Ernie remembers those times well before he retreats into his man-cave to try and create the ultimate rock and roll song. Meanwhile, Ernie is still unemployed.
It seems as if there is an agenda here from writer Bill Russell, and I have no doubt that the recent smoking bans in parks and new anti-smoking campaigns have somewhat inspired what at times is a hysterical look into the future, complete with Big Brother watching over us. We can cry about freedom at the top of our lungs (if they're still functional), but is any addict really ever free?The verbal gymnastics Farah Alvin accomplishes in one of the final numbers and the voice of Natalie Venetia Belcon throughout are almost worth the price of admission alone. It should also be said that the producers offer student rush tickets and discounted tickets for those under thirty.