I'm writing my review of Robert Askins' world premiere The Carpenter, playing through February 10 at the Alley Theatre. There's a martini nearby. It will not be my last, I fear.
This comedy...satire...farce...whatever you'd like to call it...is by the author of the irreverent, saucy, devil-as-puppet Hand to God, a 2015 Tony-nominated Best Play. The Carpenter will not be nominated for anything. Ever.
The Carpenter's Robert Askins (the non-Hand Askins), is a whole different writer from the scabrous, prickly, and opinionated Askins we thought we knew. This contemporary Askins is a throwback to last decade's television. This is nothing to be proud of. Think Two and a Half Men, Two Broke Girls, How I Met Your Mother, Rules of Engagement, Modern Family, or any of the other faceless sitcoms that turned edgy and mean, snarky and crass. We're not in l Love Lucy territory anymore.
Thanks to cable's diversity and its younger demographic, comedy writing is no longer the province of Wilde, Stoppard, Simon, or the great duo of Kaufman and Hart. We're stuck with groin jokes, vulgarities out the wazoo (literally, in this play, from Claire (Jessica Savage) who performs a magic trick out of her vagina), and characters as cartoons. To be charitable, Bugs Bunny has more personality than any of Askins' “now-ish” 2-D characters.
After the success of Hand, Askins was asked by the Alley to write something specifically for them. Carpenter began at the 2017 Alley All New festival, then was seriously work-shopped and extensively revised in New York. The artistic staff and the actors, except Brooke Wilson, are imports. I didn't see the production at All New, for if I had I wouldn't have wasted my time seeing it now no matter how many rewrites it had undergone. There will never be enough for this mediocrity to be successful. While there are some zingy lines adroitly timed and a plot pilfered from Shakespeare about mistaken identity (nothing wrong with that!), the play feels like it has been cobbled together from a playwriting manual for amateurs.
How many crazy characters can you fit on stage at any moment? Obviously, every one of them. How many hoary jokes can you pen about the rivalry between Houston and Dallas? As many as you can think of. How many times can everyone say “fuck”? All the fucking time, it seems.
There's not a lot of comedy in any of this, and after a while the whole affair turns terribly lazy. Why bother being witty and clever when the most common vulgarity will lead you through your dramatic doldrums. And doldrums there are – an ocean full. Most scenes drag on long after the plot point has expired. No one behaves like a normal person. Nobody has an inner life worth giving a damn about.
Except the bright bauble Brooke Wilson, as stripper Venus. She lights up the stage with her low-rent, damaged bar girl. She first appears wielding a baseball bat in fishnets and bustier, ready to bash her wayward lover Gene (Wade McCullum), who's now Dan in disguise. Milquetoast Dan (Ken Wulf Clark) relishes the freedom he finds in his half-brother's bad boy persona, but it's Venus who allows him the freedom to explore. When she, too, is about to be exposed at the fancy Dallas home of Dan's fiancee (Valeri Mudek), she pretends to be a British royal. In one of the most graceful and slowly building double-takes in memory – something Jack Benny did to perfection – she turns to the audience and flashes the slyest of smiles when she tricks the clueless family. She's got us firmly in the palm of her hand forever after. Unfortunately, Askins gives her nothing else to do except a giddy posh laugh. It's a writer's waste of a golden opportunity.
The remainder of the cast, who knock themselves out to no advantage, include Buddy Haardt, as Dan's frantic techie partner; Molly Carden, as Dan and Gene's punk, but wise, younger sister; Cass Morgan, as Gene and Dan's mom with family secrets; and T. Ryder Smith, as Terry's perpetually drunk dad, who continually shoots up the ceiling, like Teddy Brewster charging up the stairs in Arsenic and Old Lace.
Even this lowest-common-denominator comedy needs whiplash timing, and although director Will Davis doesn't do his career any favors with his work here, he keeps the pace frantic enough to disguise the play's slimness and bumpiness. Like many an Alley production, the money's gone into the scenery. Arnulfo Maldonado's chrsyelephantine Highland Park interior is sturdy, gaudy, and will inevitably revolve. It's a thing of beauty, yet empty and devoid of a play.
What are we to make of this world premiere? Why is the august Alley so blind? Maybe contracts were signed and sealed under former artistic director Gregory Boyd, who departed in January, 2018, under #metoo suspicions and innuendo. Maybe everyone at the Alley thought The Carpenter was a sparkling fresh tonic. Maybe they're just tone-deaf and can't pick a hit any better than the rest of us.
Perhaps the gravest fault is that colossal misstep of an ending. The downer is out of whack and decidedly out of tone. It hurls us through the windshield without warning or reason. It's an ending written by committee. Even Shakespeare, in his inkiest of comedies, shone a ray of sunshine at his finales. As long as Askins borrows from the great bard, you'd think he might have learned a little something.
The Carpenter continues through February 10. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For information, call 713-220-5700 or visit alleytheatre.org. $26-$79.
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