Love's Labor Lost
Eleemosynary. By Lee Blessing. Directed by Frank E. Reilly. Starring Laura Holliday, Jane Carmichael, and Margaret Schenck. Presented by the Chamber Theater at the Phoenix Theater, 301 Eighth St. at Folsom, through April 20. Call 346-3107.

The bookish title means "charitable," and the set is just as bookish, a stodgy Wonderland of mind-trappings, with wavy lines painted on the stage and stacks of giant reference books for furniture. The only prop is a white pair of wings on a stand. Dorothea is an old-fashioned eccentric intellectual who wears a cameo brooch at her neck and acts so insufferably vibrant she alienates her daughter, the uptight Artemis. After a long separation, Dorothea tracks down Artie after her granddaughter is born, and starts to call the baby "Echo." ("Mom, her name's Barbara. I named her three months ago." "Oh, but that was before I arrived.") The baby grows into a young echo of her grandmother, and their relationship excludes Artie. She takes a job in Europe, leaving Echo with Dorothea; and the absence of her mother becomes the girl's obsession.

Dealing with such baldly emotional material is not easy. Any play about "relationships" risks coming off as some kind of therapy session; but we all have relationships, whether we admit to being fucked up by them or not. All three women find it hard to act charitable, and Echo's problem is that she's a precocious brat. She grows up to be a talented speller; her best scene is a spelling bee where she wins with "eleemosynary." Between politely recited words she seethes and snorts like a bull, mock-boxing her rival and erupting with pride when she wins. Laura Holliday plays Echo at every stage of life -- a blubbering infant, a teething child, a pouting kid, and a teen-ager -- but this scene gives her broad talent the space it needs to flourish.

The other two are just as well cast: Jane Carmichael makes Dorothea the most consistently entertaining character by playing her with so much lightness and fervor; it's fun to see someone enjoying her job. And Artie, played by Margaret Schenck, is the play's source of heartbreak, the middle-aged woman who can't bring herself to feel the high spirits her daughter learns so blithely from Dorothea. Possibly because it isn't pushed as hard as the word "eleemosynary" (which gets repeated maybe once too often), Artie's alienation becomes the most important and powerful part of the play. The wings onstage are a symbol; but Dorothea is eccentric enough to strap them on her daughter and physically teach her to fly, and watching Artie puff her way up and down an imaginary mountain without gliding an inch is, if not sad on its own, at least a clue to what makes this play so strong.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Suburbia 3000. By D'Arcy Drollinger. Directed by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld. Starring Drollinger, Sarah Hauck, Laura LeBleu, and Elvis Herselvis. At the Somar Theater, 934 Brannan (at Ninth Street), through April 26. Call 995-4667.

Kitsch is appealingly egalitarian; anyone can recycle disposable kitchen gadgets and weekend wear into objets d'art, right? But like its cousin comedy, kitsch looks easy until it's done badly. The musical Suburbia 3000 isn't bad kitsch, but creator D'Arcy Drollinger hasn't mastered restraint either. The pop-culture iconography is gratuitous, his flimsy characters salvaged from a Nickelodeon yard sale: Rhoda, Jaime Sommers (the Bionic Woman), the Oscar Mayer hot dog, Mrs. Roper (the Three's Company landlady), and Betty Rubble. Drollinger forgets that if camp is to have some ironic value, it's not just what you pick, but how it's used and placed. In choosing not to explore its deeper, bleaker levels, Suburbia 3000 belongs not in the Rocky Horror Picture Show family of dark musical cabarets, but in the class of spinoffs and bastard sequels like Shock Treatment and Joanie Loves Chachi.

The premise: On the distant planet Suburbia, humanoids center their lives around TV transmissions from Earth. They look to Superman (delivered from deep space by Princess Lucy) to guide them to individuality and defeat the evil enemy, Cable. Superman (Drollinger), declared a messiah by the seers Larry, Moe, and Curly, is engaged to Princess Lucy. King Elvis and the Queen of Hearts (from Alice in Wonderland) send Sommers to the dark subcontinent to confirm the identity of Superman by a cheeseburger birthmark. Then Lucy's real lover, Charlie Brown, and her psychotic sister Dorothy (from The Wizard of Oz) turn up. Indeed, everyone but David Cassidy appears before the first act ends. This might seem clever and suggestive, but Drollinger's script is like an undergraduate term paper: It doesn't get to the point before pages of introductory filler. The political distinction between cable and free-access television is fuzzy, and the muddled distinction between television and Suburban life is heavy-handed.

The story is there to mark the time between Drollinger's aerobic musical numbers. The tunes are infectious, but limited by nonsensical lyrics like, "Personality/ Lay your hands on me." An enthusiastic Up With People-style chorus belts songs into standing microphones set around the stage telethon style. In the final number, "Weakness," Drollinger delivers his great thesis: TV is dumb. Compounding the hell of imprisonment in this parallel universe, the citizens of Suburbia are limited to the vocabulary of their original television personalities. But rather than pressing the absurdism of sitcom language, Drollinger falls back on tittering references to thrusting, ejaculation, and words containing "cock" to keep his audience entertained.

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