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Now and Then Doesn't Shine at the Fringe Festival

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The set-up:

Jim Tommaney is the kind of artist that wears several hats within the theater community. Houston Press readers will know him as a contributing art critic and former theater critic. Tommaney also spends time on the stage and can be seen in the upcoming performance of Catastrophic Theatre's Detroit. But it's his writing and direction for his company, Edge Theatre, that's up for consideration here.

As part of this year's Houston Fringe Festival, Edge Theatre is presenting Now and Then, two one-act pieces of 20 minutes each, written and directed by Tommaney. Unlike some of his previous shows that firmly tapped Hollywood as its muse - The Final Hours of Norma Jean (about Marilyn Monroe), Viv! (based on Vivien Leigh) and Antonio (an examination of the relationship between Pedro Almodovar and Antonia Banderas) - these new works are decidedly political in nature.

Both Now, a surrealist comedy involving an alien and the fate of mankind and Then, a docudrama about Lyndon B. Johnston's unscrupulous declaration of war against Vietnam, aim to examine how political lies are spun by our leaders and swallowed by the public. Heavy topics for a Fringe Festival, to be sure. But topics nonetheless worth exploring.

The execution: Now is the first of the two plays and it quickly calls to mind Ray Bradbury at his most misanthropic cheekiness. Or at least it tries to. In the wee hours of night at Grand Central Station, a low level security guard (Jose Luis Rivera) discovers a green-headed alien (Aaron Echegaray). Telling him to move along as the floor cleaners will be by shortly, the guard is barely fazed by the creature until he discovers an invisible and impenetrable force field (illustrated by a ring of Christmas lights) shielding the obstinate alien. Backup in the form of a higher level security guard (Brian Heaton) is called and together the men listen indifferently as they are lectured by the visitor from outer space.

Humans, says the alien, have fouled the nest with their unequal distribution of wealth, environmental abuse and self-fed lies about politics, military action and just about everything else. But perhaps the worst of mankind's offenses is the belief that each one of us is exceptional. The alien overlords have had it with the lot of us and figure destruction of Planet Earth is the only solution. Unless of course one of the two guards is willing to repudiate his specialness and admit that he is a regular human no better than anyone else.

Poking fun at our 'give a ribbon to everyone' mentality seems to be on everyone's list these days from op-ed writers to SNL skits, and while the comedy Now comes at it from an interesting angle, it's hasn't much new to say nor is it terribly funny. Watching the guard try to karate chop down the force field is an ill-conceived physical gag that goes on far too long. The morphing of the alien into a beloved Shakespearean character in order to build greater cultural trust is a quirky twist, but one that isn't given room to breathe long enough to amuse. In fact, nearly all of the Tommaney's staging decisions set against the propless black box stage are either awkward, ill-timed or unremarkable. One can't help but wonder how much better this piece would have fared as a radio play.

Additionally, other than Echegaray, whose mellifluous voice replete with the resonance of an upper crust English accent and actorly charisma keeps the alien interesting off the page, the other two cast members deliver performances somewhere between wooden and simply amateurish.

But this is all gravy compared to the hot mess that is Then. Based largely on naval records and White House transcripts, the play attempts to give us a first person account of how President Lyndon B. Johnson managed to use manipulated evidence of a North Vietnamese naval attack that never occurred to convince the Senate to declare war on Vietnam. A war that eventually resulted in 5 million casualties and no clear victory for the United States.

The show opens with Johnson (nicely played by Jim Salners) bragging about stuffing the ballot box in order to win his Primary. Once his less than ethical nature is established, we fast forward to the Vietnam years where the other two cast members (onstage seated on stools) individually chime in as to what exactly happened leading up to the war. There's Johnson's Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara (Mark Christian) and a nameless Historian (Roy Hamlin). Together the three of them employ a kind of verbatim theater mixed with minimal personal musings to get Tommaney's point across. The war was based on a lie. A lie that the United States can't excuse as a one-off we are told, when similar lies and manipulations have been used to engage the military in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Verbatim narratives (even when mixed with fictional window dressing) can be a thrilling entry point into both intellectual insight and good theater. But it can also be a drag if not handled well. Tommaney certainly has done his research. The amount of facts, figures, dates and political name dropping in the span of 20 minutes is astonishing. But as an audience member understandably less versed in the nuances of the historical period, it all becomes white noise in the absence of any compelling dramatic arc. The Historian is employed as a narrator to help us fill in the blanks, but he's used too infrequently to matter much and does nothing to bring drama or much needed tension to the piece. We want to know what the President and the Secretary of Defense were thinking while they were lying. When did they know they were lying? Why did they do it? Did they sleep at night? By the time we get some much desired insight from Johnson in the last scene of the play, we've tuned out from waiting too long.

Or perhaps we've tuned out from the astonishing lack of professionalism on the stage. I've been reviewing theater for many years and never have I seen an actor come out with script in hand. Not as a prop, but to actually read from. Such was the case for Mark Christian who not only relied on the pages to deliver his dialogue, but managed to lose his place and flub his lines over and over in spite of the unacceptable crutch. Each time the audience (and the other actors) waited in stunned awkward silence for him to find his place or realize that the next line was his; I sat waiting for the punchline. Surely Tommaney was employing some kind of ironic commentary on the character's lack of integrity or ability to stand up for truth. If this was in fact the case, the joke's on me then, because I couldn't see it. Instead, I squirmed in discomfort praying for the whole disaster to be done with. So much for the important history lesson.

The verdict:

Lies that politicians tell us and our seemingly infinite ability to naval gaze and not think past our own supposed exceptionalism and question authority is very worthwhile fodder for artistic examination. Tommaney's on the right track with his inspiration. But between a fairly pedestrian look at mankind's selfishness, a history play that forgets the drama behind the facts and figures and performances that range from decent to downright disastrous, neither Now or Then is worthy of our attention, now, then or otherwise. Now and Then has its final show at 9:30 p.m. September 26 at The Barn, 2201 Preston. Purchase tickets at the door or online at houstonfringefestival.org. $10.

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