nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
April 6, 2007
In the program notes for his rambunctious new comedy, Suburban Peepshow, playwright James Comtois admits that his main goal in writing the play was to make himself laugh. That much is clear in the very first scene, when an average suburban family murders a bothersome carnival barker in the middle of dinner and mounts his head on their wall. This is someone's idea of comedy? You betcha, and there's more where that came from. In no time, Comtois has one of his protagonists, a corporate drone named Bill, coming to work dressed as a Roman gladiator. Bill just got promoted because a co-worker of his, Jack, was fired for being a transvestite. Then, there's the therapist who's so insecure about the size of his penis that he seeks reassurance from his patients, the playwright, and anybody else he can find. And, every so often, for no discernible reason at all, a chubby guy comes out and dances for us (shirtless, I might add).
Suburban Peepshow throws down the gauntlet right at the start and never lets up, adopting a defiantly take-it-or-leave-it attitude towards the audience. This is definitely a show out to please itself and (possibly) no one else, a characteristic it shares with one of its acknowledged influences: Steven Soderbergh's 1996 experimental indie film, Schizopolis. Both works juggle multiple, seemingly unrelated plots, willfully fracture their own narratives, and turn self-consciously meta with eyebrow-raising frequency. And, like Schizopolis, Suburban Peepshow demands to be met only on its own terms. Comtois's wavelength may not be easy for everyone to tune into, but those who do will be greatly rewarded. Not only is Suburban Peepshow a head-spinning cornucopia of pop culture references, but it's also a potent satire of modern suburban malaise, and even the theatre itself. Personally, I found it to be hilarious.
The play opens with the aforementioned suburban family: Bill; his wife, Mother (that's her name); and their son, Jeremy. Bill and Mother have been together for a long time, and are stuck in a boring marital rut: he's got his eye on the aptly-named New Girl in his office, and she's dreaming of a fling with the Pool Guy. Meanwhile, Jeremy has aspirations of becoming a carnival barker, much like the one he helped his parents kill. Along the way the family crosses paths with Mother's insecure Therapist, Bill's former co-worker Jack, and a character called The Playwright, a self-styled lothario whose smarmy, pleasure-seeking ways mask insecurities of his own. (There is also that Chubby Guy.)
So, what's this all about? Well, a couple of things. First is the death of the picture-perfect nuclear family, as Suburban Peepshow explores the underbelly of that cliché. As the Carnival Barker himself says, "Witness...the banal conversation! See...the subdued tension and hostility! Look...at the mediocre dinnertime ritual, long since past its cultural relevance!" Pretty much. Whether he's charting Bill's pent-up hostility ("Always felt uncomfortable sharing his oxygen," he says about his good friend Jack) or Mother's hidden yearnings ("I've always had a thing for pool guys. I don't know what it is."), Comtois posits that such a close-knit family ideal is long gone, baby.
Suburban Peepshow also serves as a rallying cry for the theatre itself to avoid staidness and dull complacency. The play's unpredictability is evidence enough of that. You won't find kitchen-sink realism here. Suburban Peepshow is more interested in the visceral thrills one gets from watching movies, which are a recurring motif. In addition to the Schizopolis influence, many of the characters talk about movies (some of their favorites include the Charlie Sheen classics Young Guns, Major League, and Red Dawn) and even express a preference for cinema over live theatre. (This idea is played out most effectively in a funny short curtain-raiser that opens the evening, Trailers by Mac Rogers, which is nothing more or less than a series of previews for fictitious movies performed live on stage.)
Director Pete Boisvert and his cast evoke the same kind of zany energy collectively generated among friends who are enthusiastically hatching a plan or pulling a heist together. Their camaraderie and go-for-broke approach are contagious and whisk the audience along with them. Boisvert's use of red curtains to indicate scene changes emphasizes the idea that the audience is watching a sideshow attraction. And, set designer Lauren DiGiulio's use of hand-held movie screens in Trailers, to indicate close-ups, is ingenious.
The cast is excellent all-around. Zack Calhoon (Bill), Anna Kull (New Girl), and Patrick Shearer (Therapist) all capture the comic insecurities of their respective roles with expert precision. Playwright Comtois, doing double duty on stage, acquits himself quite nicely as Chubby Guy. And, in Trailers, Rebecca Comtois's declaration to "Accept nothing less than freedom!" during a preview for a faux-medieval battle epic is worth the price of admission alone.
If you're in the mood for something different, Suburban Peepshow is the way to go. By thumbing their noses at the status quo with fast, cheap, and sharp humor, Comtois and his colleagues at Nosedive Productions continue to demonstrate why they're a company to keep an eye on.