On Sundays, Gothamist runs opinion pieces on issues relevant to life in New York. The views expressed below belong entirely to the author.
Last Sunday, I wrote that for the new year my hope was that there would be fewer (preferably none, but let’s be realistic) shows that make the same old tired, simple-minded political jokes that mimic Fahrenheit 9/11 and/or The Daily Show without bringing anything new to the discussion. So I decided to see Brian Parks’ Goner, which opened last night at the Kraine Theater, and which features an assassination attempt on the President and the subsequent investigations of two wiretap-happy FBI agents who invade the hospital where he’s sent, knowing full well that I might be disappointed in that new year hope in the very first week of 2006, because although it's being presented as "a hospital comedy," when you have a presidential assassination these days it's hard to imagine that there's not going to be some politics involved. In the event, although I wasn’t as blown away by the show as some of the British press appears to have been when it ran in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2002, I had quite a few laughs, and it turned out to my pleasant surprise be less political than I expected. While there are some digs at Bush and Republicans in general, Parks makes fun of all the characters in equal measure – so, with no one shown in a good light, the politics seems more subtle and secondary.
After seeing this short play (it’s just about an hour long), my head was spinning a bit both because everything happens so fast and because in many ways the show leaves the impression that it’s the height of absurdity. But there are at least an identifiable plot and definite characters, starting with the President (Bill Coelius, who does an excellent job when he’s not out of commission on the “operating table”) but quickly moving to dramas within the hospital: the impossible love between stool analyst Wixom Wyandotte (Jona Tuck) and Dr. Hoyt Schermerhorn (Jody Lambert); Wixom’s dream of becoming a documentary filmmaker; the ambition of Dr. Ecorse Southgate (Matt Oberg), who’s invented the hilarious “Chemotherapy Barbie” (it loses hair, vomits, and makes pitiful remarks); and the refusal by Dr. Warren Wyandotte, Wixom’s dad (David Calvitto), to allow the President to be operated on; and, of course, the FBI agents (Leslie Farrell and Patrick Frederic) and their inept snooping. The impression of absurdity resulted more, then, from the absolute idiocy of all the characters, and from seeing them all thrown together in a sort of perfect storm of fools.
(more after the jump)
But back to my apprehension about the potential for simplistic political attacks, in a lot of ways the hospital staff comes off worse than the President, though this was likely inevitable since the President is up and about only for a few brief scenes. Dr. Wyandotte in particular is clearly supposed to be half-crazy, half-just slow on the uptake, but the others all get made fun of plenty, and for good reason; the film Wyandotte’s daughter wants to make, for instance, is supposed to show white people “the souls of black folk,” and throughout the play she makes innocently racist-sounding comments (to which the audience responded with surprising vocal disapproval, as though it weren’t patently obvious it was all a joke). In the end one of the things that I found problematic in the play was the lack of a character with whom one could be allied, since everyone is so lame-brained (or mush-brained, in the case of the President). Without a sympathetic personality on stage, it’s too easy to stay distant from the play and just dismiss everything about it, rather than feeling like you’re on the inside, having a good time with someone at the others’ expense.
What saves the show is the exceedingly fast delivery of all this hilarity and stupidity, expertly guided by director John Clancy. Only a couple times do the actors stumble on their lines or accidentally overlap with another’s lines; a more common occurrence is the audience’s loud laughter drowning out the next funny line. Still, the pace of the show is almost perfect, allowing no time to dwell on any silly situation, just supplying a rapid stream of jokes and witty one-liners; the few that don’t work are quickly forgotten as the next tumbles in. Matt Oberg and Jona Tuck, in particular, have an extremely amusing deadpan delivery style that exactly suits their roles and the play. In case you’re looking for a more intense, edgy brand of humor, you’ll almost certainly find this show too frothy and nonsensical, although there are some very sharp moments. And in general, if anyone spoke more slowly or less emphatically, or if the play were expanded beyond the scenes it has now, it would have tipped over into a more tiresome variety of satire, but as it is Goner goes just far enough to provoke a lot of laughs and then you’re out of there, a grin on your face.
Details: Goner is at the Kraine Theater, 85 E. 4th St., until Jan. 28. Performances are Wed.-Sat. 8pm. Tickets at Smarttix.