By Bill Corbett
Directed by Rick Lombardo
54 Lincoln Street, NEWTON HIGHLANDS
(617) 332-1647 -- Through June 8th

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

The final production in Director Rick Lombardo's first season as Artistic Director at The New Repertory Theatre is the one we've been waiting for-- the hot new play by an author previously unknown to Bostonians, on a topic designed to bring Generation X into the theatre -- Generation X's own manners and morals. Playwright Bill Corbett's target for ridicule in "The Big Slam" -- which was named "best new play of the year" by the Minneapolis Tribune--- is the peculiar mixture of enthusiasm, spirituality, lust, stupidity, and greed that makes up the creed of the entrepreneurial gurus who peddle their solipsistic success-worship on late-night television.

Corbett's hero and narrator is Orrin Hoover (Eric Roemele), a nerdy type is who is envious of the go-getters around him even as he deplores their glib and shallow ways. Orrin majored in history at a minor university, and he is currently supporting himself as an office temp while dreaming of a tenured birth in academia, some day "when the world is in the mood to hire teachers again". Orrin alternates his observations on the modern world and its crass inhabitants with little history homilies, most of them having to do with Solon, the lawgiver of ancient Athens whose name became a synonym for justice and integrity. This would pass as simple pedantry, except that Orrin mispronounces the legendary Greek's name as S' -LOAN, rhymes with "groan". I am flummoxed by this. Orrin is supposed to be a degree'd scholar, and he (or Roemele?) botches an historical name famous enough to appear in pocket dictionaries. Is the entire audience supposed to spot this solecism? Type Orrin as an ignorant fraud, or at best as an autodidact who has never been in a classroom where the famous name was said aloud? Or are we all now indeed dwelling in the dumbed-down world of Wallace Shawn's "The Designated Mourner", where "everyone on earth who could read John Donne was now dead"?

Be that as it may, our hero's present position is that of foil and patsy for his college chum Russell, (Robert Pemberton) a bright and charming chap who was once voted most likely to succeed, but has somehow wound up stagnating in the temp pool along with Orrin. Russell is a very familiar type, particularly on television and in politics. He's good looking, well-spoken, sincere even when he knows you know he's lying to you. Russell wants to be everybody's spoiled child: to take whatever you have that he wants and yet be so irresistibly lovable that he's forgiven and even admired while he's doing it. Russell feels your pain. Russell knows your weakness. But he's entertaining company, and actor Pemberton has the timing and the presence to make the most of him -- I smiled at everything Russell did, and laughed at most of what Russell said, even though I'd heard it all many times before..

The play begins when the two friends are bowled over by a strikingly beautiful, outrageously arrogant young woman they meet in an upscale lounge. Stephanie (Cyndi Freeman) is a hotshot lawyer who has lost her position because she carried ruthless ambition a tad too far for the Old Boys' comfort. Russell approaches her with the lines that usually work for him with women -- the lad's been more successful so far in sexual than in business affairs -- and Stephanie's sarcastic reposte cuts the would-be Casanova down to the size of a kindergartner. Nevertheless, the bitch-goddess allows her humble knight Orrin to fetch her a drink, and condescends to haul handsome Russell off to her place for marathon sex before Orrin can even return with her order from the bar. Months later, when the rutting pair come up for air, they decide to take Orrin on as a partner in the business enterprise they are going to launch together -- Russell happens to know that his thrifty sidekick has built up a nest egg of ten thousand dollars while working at his temp MacJobs over the last decade. Orrin, the poor tweep, is putty in their hands, and watching them process him is about as much fun as feeding time at the zoo.

Stephanie turns out to be an apostle of the " Strategies for Power" program, as promulgated by some nameless late-night guru's proliferating sets of books and tapes. The woman's steely intellectual brilliance plus her abundant physical attractions pull the two very different men into the "Strategies" orbit, and by sheer power of personality the actress who plays her must also convince the audience to put up with listening to and laughing at paragraphs of self-empowerment garbage that anyone who has a life would click off in about forty-five seconds.

Cyndi Freeman has proved on previous outings that she is a good comic performer, and a good serious actress. But here she can't meld these divergent talents into a plausible character. She seems to be standing to one side of the character as written, pushing her Stephanie into eccentricities of behavior that look more like calisthenics than motivated action, but punctuating these antics with occasional instants of drop-dead revelation. There is one moment when Freeman tosses off a line that implies that if Orrin had come on to her at their first meeting Stephanie would have preferred him to Russell. The line rings absolutely true -- but makes no sense whatsoever, given what we have seen her do and say in the meeting in question..

The fourth character in "The Big Slam" is UPS deliverywoman named Gail (Charissa Cree Chamorro) whose early entrances with shipments of the latest installments of the "Strategies" program come as a welcome relief from the strain of chants and screams and affirmations and the version of brainstorming the "Strategies" acolytes call "Slamming". We like Gail at once. She seems normal, a person to trust. Gail exchanges a few friendly words with Orrin, and then is queried by Russell as a representative of the ordinary consumer: What does she want? he asks her. What do "people" want? "Niceness", the uniform-clad young woman answers with a shy smile. What does Niceness look like? Russell asks. In response, Gail doodles a cute little cartoon figure on a napkin. Russell has a "Eureka" experience. He claims credit for the drawing as well as the idea, names the creature after himself, and sets out to build a marketing empire on it. .

Ah! But even as two of the budding entrepreneurs are underemployed academics, ordinary blue-collar Gail turns out to be an underemployed artist, a graduate of the Parsons School. Gail has the ability to produce hundreds of variations on her original "panda-bear-Hobbit thing", and because she seems to be genuinely delighted to be practicing her art with no thought of claiming a share of the future riches for herself, she is hired to draw multiple Russells while Stephanie wheels and deals The Enterprise to success. But although for a while it looks as if Niceness will win the day, Gail takes to the Strategies like a duck to water. Soon she too is spouting platitudes while acting out scenarios of greed, lust, and betrayal..

"The Big Slam" has a bad case of both/and, (which a writer can often get away with on series TV) when stage comedy is pretty much restricted to either/or. Either these are basically good people trying to make their way through a booby trapped world and helpless in the grip of a Weird Notion, or they are monsters of our age, incarnations that reveal the true lineaments of what we have become in the service of Mammon. We root for a Happy Ending, or we hope to see the SOB's get what's coming to them. Laughter is indulgent or cruel. Director Rick Lombardo, in his effort to have both kinds of laughter, gets little of either. Mostly this is the result of the schizoid script, which has the exposition and padding of a sentimental comedy jumbled in with the blunt brutalities of satire. But it is also the fault of the staging. .

Eric Levenson's set, a bright multipurpose playpen of a space made from primary washes of color and shiny white plastic minimalist furnishings on a diagonal game grid of a floor, provides an arena whose arbitrary rigidities and visual glitz attract the eye and but whose lack of curves and comforts and privacy force the body into unnatural accommodations. This promises plenty of physical comedy-- and indeed there are many cartoon panels of amusing images, a batch of them having to do with acting out the prescriptions of the Strategies method of Slam-thinking. But the images just don't add up..

Two examples were particularly annoying. The first is a sex scene, on the upper level floor. Russell and Stephanie are practicing strenuous aggressive -- something or other. Stephanie is on top, doing running commentary, and she is wearing a bra, panties, garter belt and sheer black stockings. Russell, on the bottom, is wearing boxer shorts. This startles the audience into laughter when the lights come up -- but then what? What are we to understand from this odd spectacle? Is this clothed simulation of coitus a convention, designed to protect the actors' modesty? A strange form of Safe Sex? Or the Power Couple's peculiar perversion? The laughter dies away in speculation. The second is a bit where Orrin hides under a desk in the office and overhears what his partners really think of him. Except that the desk isn't a desk, but only a bare-bones drafting table, and it offers no place to hide. The other people in the scene would have to be blind and deaf to be unaware of his presence. In order to believe in the joke we must reject the evidence of our eyes, and with it the created world whose parameters define the reality against which we are to measure what the characters do and say. If what we see doesn't matter, why should we bother to watch? The play becomes an example rather than an illustration of what happens when truth becomes irrelevant.