World Enough, and Slime

As the "greed" installment in their self-proclaimed "sin season," Theater LaB presents Search and Destroy, Howard Korder's grimly entertaining play about the fast-driving world of power and money. It's a sharp-edged and sophisticated, although finally rather prosaic, tour of American disenchantment.

Korder's protagonist, Martin Mirkheim, is a wannabe Master of the Universe -- not for nothing is his name close to Michael Milkin's. But, alas, he's a dweeb, a loser creep. "The top of the food chain, you're not," a fellow fast-laner advises him. With only a salesman's manic flash for a soul, Martin goes in search of something greater, something that will show him how to be the most intimidating kid on the block. Having bombed out with a production company that toured wrestlers, polka bands and Smurfs on ice, Martin's now fixated on making a movie from the writing of a jaded self-help quack whose Machiavellian world-view he's taken to heart. The good doctor's book is a sort of yuppie Thus Spake Zarathustra, with rules to success such as "strength needs no excuse" and "the past is pointless," and the amoral edict to create oneself from moment to moment.

Unfortunately for Mirkheim, his guru isn't easily found, so he travels doggedly around the country in search of him. Mirkheim is a missile -- search and destroy -- once locked onto his target, he stops at nothing, even as he slips ever deeper into a sinkhole of debt and illegality. But in the end -- dare I give too much away? -- self-serving power and avarice do come out on top.

During his obsessive odyssey, Mirkheim meets several people who assist him for their own vague and crazed reasons -- in particular the lyrical and mysterious "freelance entrepreneur" Kim. No one comes anywhere close to being sympathetic in this world, but characters are likable for the weird ways they choose to live in their empty universe.

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In Korder's America, locale and home and heritage are mere theme-park banalities. When Mirkheim asks a Dallas resident why no one has a Texas accent, she shrugs and says blandly, "Everyone here is from everywhere." Life proceeds in such anonymous places as hotel rooms and airport snack arenas. There is no meaning in this arena, so when Mirkheim comes on the scene with his will-to-power notions, he's supposed to stand out, because at least he believes in something.

Fear's the subtext here -- one character predicts with an entrepreneur's excitement that the '90s are to be the decade of fear, with all the attendant marketing possibilities (security systems, bullet-proof leisure suits). This theme could pose an interesting question: do the most ruthless, the missiles of our culture, indeed survive better than the rest of us meek slobs? But that question's not explored in any really intelligent way here; the playwright instead leapfrogs into the assumption that the only way to deal with fear is to be scary oneself.

With raucous music and lighting that doesn't illuminate so much as hurt your eyes, Theater LaB's production under Robin Robinson's direction has an in-your-face overcharged quality, like the theme music on a bad cop show, or a bright classmate who's ingested too much crystal meth. It's not a pleasant place to be. But while playwright Korder's rat-a-tat-tat styling may be akin to David Mamet's, or his blackly comic world-view similar to Christopher Durang's, he still has not developed enough depth to lend credence to his jaded satire. Although Search and Destroy gives a grim and quick-fisted portrayal of the bonfire of the vanities set, in the final analysis its philosophies are not yet as sophisticated as its sleek, glossy, high-heeled ambiance.

Korder's background is in short pieces, and Search and Destroy does best when taken as a series of piercingly hilarious comic bits by its many hyperbolic characters. Perhaps the evening's high point is when the blase receptionist Marie (played with fierce, deadpan effectiveness by Celeste Cheramie) describes the grisly plot of her slasher screenplay, which includes an attack by a "gangrene penis."

Likewise, Raymond Carmiciano's Ron, a ludicrously foul-mouthed Brooklynite, has a splendid romp describing why he loves New York -- the reason for which comes down to that he can beat up a TV personality with a baseball bat in Yankee Stadium.

Mark J. Roberts plays Mirkheim with the self-deluding zeal of a not-too-bright salesman. It's riveting to watch as Mirkheim's George Bush-style sentence fragments rise into crescendos of greater and greater incoherence. Still, it would have helped had Mirkheim been given a little more soul, even if it were a shriveled, hungry soul. In opposition, Rodney Walsworth's intelligent Kim provides a still point for the play, even as he gets agitated and murderous. Walsworth is a pleasure to watch, although over the course of several roles his range as an actor can seem limited. But then, Marlon Brando always played the same character, too.

"It's a dead little planet we are standing on," Kim muses to Mirkheim with chilling elation near the play's end, standing in a barren field of refineries outside New York City. Search and Destroy paints the world as a cynical, empty place. However, I don't think I buy it. You need look no further than Theater LaB's own dilapidatedly appealing old Houston neighborhood to find all of the distinctive and genuine "real world" you could want. Nearby there are places such as the old Mendoza bakery -- with its high wood ceilings, screened double doors and exposed oven -- which offers luscious fare on the order of apple empanadas and gingerbread pigs. If Search and Destroy's ugly Americans want to be Masters of the Universe, they can have it: it's not my universe, and I'd bet it's not many other people's, either.

Search and Destroy plays through February 4 at Theater LaB, 1706 Alamo, 868-7516.

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