nytheatre.com review by Heather J. Violanti
November 22, 2008
The world is rude and the streets are mean in Native Speech, Eric Overmyer's forgotten 1983 play. Overmyer has since gone on to write for the staid Law and Order franchise, but this early play showcases his experimental roots. It envisions a bleak future dystopia, a "darkening world [that's] dangerous and always winter."
Overmyer's play is also startlingly prescient, as evidenced by a solid revival from Boomerang Theatre Company. Though written 25 years ago, its themes remain current—the boundary between news and entertainment, the blur between fiction and reality, the fears of environmental collapse. Overmyer wrote Native Speech before the words "reality TV," "shock jock," "global warming," and "infotainment" existed, and yet this play, so eerily predictive, could have been written today. Only a few passing references to outmoded technology (LPs and phone booths) and a strip scene (no longer shocking, and redolent of misguided chauvinistic fantasy) seem dated. Despite these glitches, and some aesthetic flaws, Boomerang's gritty production succeeds in capturing Native Speech's mean streets.
In a series of disorienting, non-linear scenes, we witness the collapse of The Hungry Mother, an underground disc jockey stuck in some future hell. Hungry Mother broadcasts freeform radio from a studio hovel. He's in love with the sound of his voice, and the sound of words, as illustrated in his increasingly virulent but always poetic diatribes. He makes up news for entertainment. To his horror, his fiction becomes fact—and the world gradually spins out of his control.
Boomerang's well-paced production, directed by Christopher Thomasson, evokes this future world capably, if not always powerfully. The set, designed by Nikki Black, evokes a post-apocalyptic junkyard. Outdated technology—old disk drives, VCRs, heavy computer monitors, cash registers, record players, typewriters—litter the stage and spill out into the auditorium. The stage itself is divided—awkwardly—into two playing areas, a messy office/hovel and an all-purpose platform that represents everything outside of Hungry Mother's den, from street to jail cell. This platform, small, low and set far back, feels unmoored. To help with quick scene transitions, it's completely empty, but it looks like a hasty afterthought. It just doesn't seem to belong to the play's world.
Costume designer Cheryl McCarron fashions bizarre futuristic clothes on a shoestring budget that look deliberately shoestring. The wardrobe ranges from the apricot leather bustier worn by prostitute Free Lance to the sexualized interpretation of Native American costume worn by the Navajos, a sort of revolutionary troupe/rock group. Lighting designer Christina Watanabe, meanwhile, keeps the stage dark, and uses lots of eerie blues to escalate the growing sense of doom.
Since the play revolves around radio broadcasts, sound designer Megan Henninger pays tribute to radio's past. Before the show starts, and during intermission, soundbites from old radio shows blare over the speakers. They range from comic routines by Abbott and Costello (we hear a moment from "Who's On First"), obscure superhero serials, and the pompous newscasts of Walter Winchell (underscored by typewriters) to inane commercials for Jergen's lotion. Each soundbite is punctuated by static, to suggest someone manically changing stations. It's a clever idea that perhaps isn't quite pushed as far it could go. In the end, the clips still sound like clips edited together for a theater production, and less of an organic part of this futuristic world. Still, they provide invaluable context when The Hungry Mother, plays sly tribute to old radio traditions (as when he plonks a typewriter during his invented newscasts, a la Winchell).
Vinnie Penna excels during Hungry Mother's rants. They escalate in intensity until Penna leans into the microphone, howling his words like a wounded animal. The ensemble tackle their roles with equal skill, balancing menace with black humor and pathos. Alisha Spielmann makes a sympathetic Janis, a lonely Hungry Mother fan desperate to go on the air. She hopes that if she's broadcast, she can prove she exists. David Roberts plays The Mook, a pimp, with sinister charm that turns lethal. Jessica Angleskhan captures the smirking sensuality of Free Lance while avoiding cliché. Gil Giles radiates rueful wisdom as Belly Up, Hungry Mother's enigmatic ally. Mel Nieves makes the disintegration of petty thug Charlie Samoa truly frightening, while Chris Chinn and Pierluca Arancio play his henchmen with violent glee. Arancio also showcases his comic skills as Crazy Joe Navajo, the spaced-out member of a rock/vigilante band. The remaining band members—Hoover and Freddy—are played with ironic aplomb by Michael R. Rosete and Stephanie Lyn Silver.
Native Speech hasn't been seen in New York since a revival by Soho Rep in 1991. Boomerang's current production, therefore, offers an invaluable chance to see a challenging, rarely produced play. This play—and this company—deserve an audience.