nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
February 11, 2006
The thrill of discovering a bright new talent is one of the indisputable joys of theatregoing. Anyone currently seeking that thrill need not look any further than the new political comedy, Clean Alternatives, which features the work of an exciting new writer and an equally exciting actor—both of whom are the same person: Brian Dykstra. He has written a sharp, funny, potent, and oh-so-timely play about corporate greed and the environment; and he’s also giving a ferocious performance in one of the lead roles as a mercenary, big shot lawyer. The irony here is that Dykstra isn’t some fresh-faced newcomer who’s just magically appeared out of nowhere. He’s a prolific veteran who’s been around for years (see his website for further proof of this). But, this is my first encounter with him, so he’s new to me. And I couldn’t ask for a better introduction to his work. In a perfect world, Clean Alternatives would be the vehicle that exposes Dykstra to a wider audience, as both a writer and an actor. This is stimulating, whip-smart theatre that should not be missed.
Jackie runs her family-owned-and-operated business, which has been around for decades. One day, she meets with two lawyers, Mr. Cutter and Mr. Slate, who represent a large corporation, appropriately named Planet America. Noticing that her company operates at a small financial loss every month, Planet America offers to keep it, and her, fiscally afloat for the next ten years. There’s only one string attached. It seems that Jackie’s company and Planet America both manufacture their goods in the same Midwestern state. Therefore, the deal is contingent on Jackie agreeing to trade her company’s pollution rights to Planet America if, for any reason, she should go out of business any time in the next decade.
Cutter and Slate are quick to point out that the Planet America is not interested in buying her company, and are not asking Jackie to sell it to them. And, since the corporation’s board of directors would prefer to keep everything hush-hush, there is no written contract for Jackie to sign, or any other paper trail documenting this potential arrangement. A verbal or handshake agreement will suffice (especially since, as Cutter and Slate tell Jackie, both are equally as binding in court). What gives here? It seems that Planet America is positioning itself to pollute the environment more than it already does (Jackie’s is not the only company they’ve approached)—which, apparently, is more cost effective than switching their factories over to safer, more environmentally friendly equipment and practices. And, totally legal.
If Clean Alternatives was confined strictly to the negotiations between Jackie and the lawyers, it would still be an effective and entertaining production. Dykstra gets things going right off the bat, with the lawyers coming in and hitting Jackie with a one-two barrage of word games and doubletalk, then quickly move on to playing Bad Cop-Worse Cop. (These guys would fit right into several of David Mamet’s plays.) They so fill the room with their corporate sense of entitlement that when the two men finally pause, after several minutes of non-stop banter, Jackie asks, “Are you waiting for me to say something?” More banter and doubletalk ensues, with Jackie finally admitting, “I don’t understand what you’re asking.” Perfect. Cutter and Slate have got her right where they want her.
Or do they? Jackie turns out to be savvier than expected. And the lawyers aren’t as scary as they initially seem to be. Chinks in their armor start to show through. Slate dislikes being interrupted. Cutter has a lot of pent-up anger (towards women, the Chicago Cubs, and Steve Bartman), and frequently misuses language: “occstensibly” for “ostensibly”; “takin’ a cotton to” instead of “takin’ a shine to.” By the time the meeting ends (surprisingly, only halfway through Act I), it’s obvious that there’s more to Clean Alternatives than meets the eye. The men drop their game faces, and the audience sees new sides of them. Slate admits he can’t take this type of work and lifestyle any more. Working for “The Man” is no longer good for his mental well-being. Cutter reveals his extended foray into Eastern Religion. Once Jackie appears again, running for political office and delivering slam poetry-style stump speeches, it’s clear that Dykstra has more on his mind than just conference room maneuvering. Clean Alternatives is full of other surprises—about mankind’s search for meaning, the disparity between knowing what’s right and doing what’s right, and the civic power of the people—that I will leave for you to discover on your own.
Dykstra is smart enough to know that big business, and the other special interest groups who have the government in their pocket, really run the country. But, he’s also optimistic enough to think that people can still influence public opinion enough to strike fear in the hearts of the power brokers and make them change their tune. Both sides get equal voice in Clean Alternatives. Dykstra also leaves no ambiguity regarding where he stands on the issues he brings up. He asks questions and answers them (a rarity in writing these days), which gives the audience plenty of room to figure out which side they’re on.
The author also writes wonderful speeches, full of color, wit, humor, and revelation. They err towards the long-ish side, which works most of the time. There are a couple of instances where Dykstra seems to fall so in love with his words—especially their rhythm—that he momentarily loses sight of the larger picture he’s trying to paint (as does the audience). But, on the whole, his writing here is terrific.
Director Margarett Perry does a terrific job, making sure that everything coheres thematically. The centerpiece of Maruti Evans’s set—a $100 bill that covers the back wall—hovers appropriately over the proceedings. Jennifer R. Halpern’s perfect costumes—Cutter and Slate’s custom-tailored power suits, Jackie’s homespun business casual wear—speak volumes about the characters from the moment we first see them. And the acting is terrific. Sue-Anne Morrow is superb as Jackie, grounding her character’s liberalism in clear-eyed choice rather than starry-eyed optimism. Mark Boyett is excellent as Slate, making him both believably hard-nosed and sensitive. And, as Cutter, Dykstra is sensational, giving a hilarious, scene-stealing performance that is full of sly smarts and killer instinct.
And, what if Clean Alternatives turns out to not be the vehicle for which Dysktra’s considerable talents are “discovered” by the public-at-large? Never fear. At the rate that he seems to work, it’ll only be a matter of time (probably sooner rather than later) before they are.