The Capital Mall
nytheatre.com review by Thomas Weitz
May 14, 2005
The Capital Mall, a new off-Broadway rock opera set in the 1990s, is about a group of middle management employees faced with the threat of losing their jobs. It's a subject filled with subtlety and nuance but it's been set within the superficial world of malls, with the worst of conventional musical posturing.
The story is centered around Marlene and Johnny, a couple who work together in the Returned Check Department of The Capital Mall. They are part of a team of employees who spend their days trying to bust “screws,” i.e., people who try to buy mall merchandise with faulty credit cards and checks.
The first act of the show consists of a typical day in the Returned Check Department. The Returned Check employees start off the show by busting a very unthreatening “screw” and then celebrating their accomplishment for almost the remainder of the first act. The second act starts with an announcement that half of the employees of the mall will be fired and replaced by robots. Marlene, having succumbed to the pressure of possibly losing her job, turns Johnny in to her manager for breaking office rules, in return for her own job security. As a result of Marlene’s deception Johnny loses his job and turns, unconvincingly, into an alcoholic (he runs almost directly from the manager's office where he got fired to the bar in the mall lobby). Marlene, who has lost Johnny, and in theory the only meaningful relationship in her life, becomes increasingly obsessed with career stability and goes crazy, loses her job, and lives on the street.
Although the story makes sense structurally, it's hard to believe in relationships when the characters are so superficially drawn. For example, one of the characters in The Capital Mall, a homeless alcoholic, is reduced from what in life is often a complicated and painful story of a human being losing their place in the world to the meaningless tirade of a “colorful” character in the mall.
More problematically, Marlene is played by the only person of color in a show that purports to be based, albeit loosely, on a mall in Brooklyn that has always been employed and been frequented mainly by people of color. Not only does this bring into question the validity of the story but it also puts immense pressure on how Marlene’s character is depicted as the only character of color in the show. Unfortunately, Marlene comes across as an undeveloped character inconsistent even in the context of the play. She possesses all the confidence, wit, and abilities of her peers, but is the only employee in the mall to succumb to the pressure of losing her job, in theory because, unlike her fiance, she is uneducated. Furthermore, the most revealing events in her character's development, namely going crazy, losing her job and living on the streets, all happen off stage.
Johnny, Marlene’s fiance and ultimately the hero of the play, is as hard to connect with as Marlene. He seems so dismissive of the homeless characters in the play that he comes across as callous and self-absorbed. He is so self-absorbed in fact that he shows little concern for the employees outside of his department that will be fired.
The score and the choreography prove as problematic as the book. But the costumes, designed by Carolyn Pallister, are spot on, capturing the terrible mall fashions that later gave birth to Tommy Hilfiger and fanny packs perfectly. The set by Scott Aronow is a perfect replica of the hideous, antiseptic interior of an American mall, complete with white marble walls set into white wooden framing. The set also includes a working elevator door complete with an arrow that indicates what floor you are visiting. I alsohave to mention the two-foot tall robot built by Gloria Sun, which spits out motivational epigrams to the mall employees like, “Be proactive, now that’s attractive.” It may not be a very threatening representation of the robots that will supposedly eventually replace the mall employees, but it's a big risk that pays off theatrically.
The Capital Mall, which has been written and developed over the past ten years by Eric Jaimes, is clearly a labor of love. Not only did he spend so much time working on the piece, and take on the lion’s share of responsibility (he is not only the playwright and composer, but also the director, musical director, and a member of the band), he also financed the production out of pocket. I wonder if having a few more hands on deck might have helped him realize his vision more effectively.