Disco Knights

English playwright John Godber's Bouncers meets you at the... title. Set in and around a Manchester "disco" called The Mr. Cinders Club, it is indeed anchored by four "bouncers," muscular young fellows employed by the club to gatekeep the front door, keep order and, if all else fails, bodily eject unruly patrons. The script also "bounces" in a more theatrical sense. Consisting of a couple of dozen scenes in a single weekend evening, Bouncers (at Theater LaB through February 5) is a lightly comic, mostly parodistic portrait of the young denizens of the working-class club scene, considered with a sardonic but very forgiving eye. The subtitle is not coy: "A Comedy About Disco Knights."

Bouncers' four young actors (Andrew Wupper, Patrick Gillis, Randy Sparks, Jef Johnson) play among them a score of roles -- the eponymous bouncers as well as beauticians and barbers, wasted punkers, leering lounge lizards, young lads out for a good time and young lasses on the same errand, and even for a brief moment, the "actors" in a Swedish porn video. There seems to have been a bit of fiddling with the time frame -- an opening "rap" number refers to "'90s urban life," although I doubt that even in backwater northern England they call dance clubs "discos" anymore -- but in effect the play is set in the off-the-clock world of party-party weekends, where the only hour that matters is closing time. Anybody who's hit the dance bars on a Friday night will recognize the territory, from the underage drinking to the overloud music to the clumsily desperate sexual pursuits to the sodden air of exhausted, drunken frustration, homeward bound at 2 a.m.

But Godber allows only the slightest undercurrent of skeptical sobriety to invade his mostly happy campground; the evening is generally given over to lighthearted, campy sketching of the beginning, middle and end of a club-world evening. Chattering hairdressers poof and spray their clients for a night on the town, followed quickly by a surly and incompetent barber doing a scarifying variation of the same for his. Four young mates, in their illusory separate bathrooms, in chorus squeeze zits, rub on Clearasil, sing "Roxanne" (that wobbly time frame again) and attempt to palliate their wretched breaths before they hit the streets together.

At one moment we see the same lads breathlessly chugging pints and slugging Scotch in a frenzied race to get as pissed as possible; at the next moment we see their four female opposites, working up their courage for the evening and, after a drink or two, giggling about being all "tiddely." Other than the bouncers, these matched quartets are the only continuing characters, but they are so minimally differentiated that they become a group tandem of generic club-hoppers, useful primarily for hanging a narrative hook.

Under Ron Jones's brisk direction and Theater LaB's spatial flexibility, the whole thing is accomplished with the four actors in glittering vests, an empty arena space with only minimal props, and quick shifts from sketch to sketch, the actors mildly impersonating the fleeting club panorama by caricatured changes of voice and gesture. Some bits are more successful than others -- as "girls" these guys seem, to the frank delight of their audience, more like mincing queens than the real thing -- but since the play is essentially a grab-bag revue of comic bits, nothing lasts long enough to pall.

From the description, Bouncers might have been an insightful vision of working-class life in the contemporary English neo-realist tradition; instead it is simply a pleasantly diverting night on the town, with little aftertaste, good or bad. Godber has his radar set on high alert whenever he veers toward earnestness. One of the bouncers, Lucky Eric (Wupper), is allowed two brief thoughtful "speeches" about club desperation; at the third, he launches into Shakespearean soliloquy and is unceremoniously "bounced" by his fellows. None of that pooftah sentiment here, boys.

The overall result is a cheery actors' piece, full of vocal and gestural hijinks, that was generously appreciated by the opening-night audience, well-seeded with young local actors cheering their intrepid colleagues. Wupper, Gillis, Sparks and Johnson about equally do their damnedest, and despite the efforts of dialect coach Deborah Kinghorn, their accents wobble somewhere mid-Atlantic rather than north of England, often disappearing altogether in falsetto (much of the fun comes from what is essentially drag humor, tee hee hee). The boys are far more convincing as white-boy rappers, and parodistic Madonna "voguers," than they are as bouncy English birds.

Bouncers is a fun piece, but a giant step below Theater LaB's heretofore higher standard. My guess is, if he hasn't done so already, John Godber is busily recruiting a lyricist and piano man to bang out a Bouncers revue, in which bland pop songs smilingly "flesh out" the thin premise of a night on the town. Come on in. Have some fun. Check your money at the bar.


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