nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 1, 2005
Anathemaville is a good idea gone wildly out of control. Playwright Scott Venters has taken as his theme the splendidly pertinent notion that behemoth retailers like Wal-Mart are sucking the life blood out of American towns and cities, which certainly strikes me as a valid and useful area of inquiry: my own experience is that in this age of customization, there seem to be fewer rather than more choices, and the ones that exist are generally for the convenience of the seller, not the buyer.
Venters uses the classic play Our Town as point of departure and framing device. Venters co-opts the structure of Thornton Wilder's play, most of its famous scenes and images (i.e., he gets two characters up on ladders talking about life near the end of Act I; shows us his young couple on a date in a 21st century shopping-center version of a drug store; etc.), and even makes use of a narrator (Uber-Mart greeter/security guard Leo stands in for the earlier play's Stage Manager). Venters's notion, I presume, is to juxtapose the idyllic American way of life supposedly depicted in Our Town with the crass present-day plastic life epitomized by mass-marketing goliaths like his Uber-Mart.
Alas, here's where Venters starts to go badly astray, for he makes the wrong assumption about Our Town (i.e., that it's sentimental claptrap) and indulges in parody—of the Wilder play, not of life in Wal-Mart-Land.
Worse, he also indulges himself, to the point of presenting an unwieldy three-act script that runs some 200 tightly-typed pages in hard copy, and lasts something like four hours in production. I must admit to leaving the theatre at the end of Act Two, which at the performance attended concluded at 10:15pm (the show began at 7:30). I've read through the final act for purposes of this review.
The basic story involves David, an inert and apathetic Uber-Mart employee, and his awakening by Carol, the renegade daughter of Uber-Mart's chairman, who with David plots a demonstration against the company. Venters surrounds David with a host of unattractive and weirdly afflicted characters: Bernard, the automaton-like aspiring manager, who has a deformed finger that apparently frightens everyone who sees it; Verda, an unassuming young woman whom everyone labels a "dyke" for reasons never quite made clear, who has a gas-mask-like device over her face because of a rare disorder involving the relative sizes of her tongue and head; BJ, a waif who was abandoned in Uber-Mart as a child and now fancies himself Sir Galahad, knight of the round table (inexplicably speaking in a Medieval dialect filled with archaic words and phrasings that he could not possibly have learned in an American department store that he has supposedly never ventured out of); Warren, a gay man in severe denial with a penchant for hurting himself; and Kathleen, David's cousin and fiancée, who is addicted to heroin and crack, was sexually abused by her father, and now pays for her drug habit by having sex with the grotesquely fat store manager.
I never understood why Venters wants to make the denizens of Anathemaville (the Southern American town where his play takes place) so extravagantly dysfunctional and unlikable; seems to me that his points about big business killing individualism and initiative would register more successfully if he tried to make his play about US instead of about a demonized THEM that most audience members will not only not identify with, but not wish to spend any time with at all.
Meanwhile the play's quotient of vulgarity, offensiveness, and just mean grossness escalates as it runs on (I verified this with my perusal of Act Three in the script).
The production, directed by Jess McLeod, is prisoner to the play's excesses. It's hard for me to believe that none of the folks involved with this project is aware that the play is at least two hours too long.
It might be interesting to see what might be left of Anathamaville should Venters rigorously edit and focus the work. For now, it can only be charitably described as an interesting idea gone disastrously awry.