Stage

Going Nowhere
The Joy of Going Somewhere Definite. By Quincy Long. Directed by Mame Hunt. Starring Bob Ernst, Delia MacDougall, Sean San Jose Blackman, Nick Scoggin, Kimberly Richards, and James Rummonds. At the Magic Theater, Fort Mason, through July 20. Call 441-8822.

Merle, Ray, and Junior have, it seems, very little to do. Hanging out in their local roadhouse in an unnamed northern backwater, the three buddies sing, drink, and spew inane philosophy until they find their purpose for the evening: a stranger even drunker than they are. "Why don't he take his hat off?" cries Raymond (Bob Ernst), the group's feverish leader. After throwing ashtrays at the stranger's head, they take him on a joy ride, which leads to a little midnight target practice, a dip in an icy lake, and a road trip across Canada meant to reunite him with his AWOL wife. When they discover that the wife has not escaped into another man's arms but into the arms of the Lord via a religious convent, and that the still-sloshed stranger is not even her husband but her husband's killer, the men must come to terms with their own lost souls.

Put a few working-class men in a bar and set them to misbehaving and you have the first ingredient in many a drama, from O'Neill to Mamet. But when a playwright today resorts to such a demeaning and unprovocative depiction of a socioeconomic class, one assumes he or she must have ulterior motives. Maybe it's meant to create an allegory of our common fate as an insufferably misguided species, for example, or to lampoon the cliches usually heaped on working people. Surely, we are not meant to watch an entire play that depicts working-class people as stupid, drunken, spineless, sentimental, and self-aggrandizing and not wonder what the playwright's intention really is.

But such is the predicament that Quincy Long foists upon his audience. At turns caricatured and subtle, sentimental and arcane, his trio of besotted unemployed loggers resemble the foolish threesomes from Shakespeare's plays, albeit with two key distinctions. Shakespeare sets uneducated poor within a larger social body wherein they echo the ambitions of the usurping duke or the swooning of the lovelorn princess, thus linking their foibles to those of humanity as a whole. Shakespeare also endows them with their own brand of shrewd intelligence, which allows them to articulate subtler truths. In contrast, Long strands his lumpen buffoons in a socially isolated landscape without the scantest sense of self-direction or intelligence: "We are men without women, we are loggers without trees!" the gang chants in one of the strangely bombastic anthems that break the play's realistic façade.

The Joy of Going Somewhere Definite is about the misery of going nowhere fast. With the exception of Helene, the leader of a religious shelter, the characters don't know where they're headed, but that doesn't prevent them from yearning for a mission. But Long's tendency to mock undermines the poignancy of their wanderings. They yell, they proclaim absurd truisms, and they yell some more. In the end, despite each character's lack of individual agency, the universe gives them what they deserve. In the context of a very unflattering portrait of people who have no jobs, no education, and no apparent community, the New Age universe-knows-best moral smacks of middle-class condescension.

The acting and directing do little to dispel this philosophical fog bank. Despite their tremendous vitality, skills, and charms, the actors wield their down-home accents and low IQs like blunt axes. Magic Theater Artistic Director Mame Hunt's directorial debut exhibits a sharp eye for exuberant blocking, but also a taste for loud, overblown characters. The most sympathetic dramatic presence has no name; onstage sound man Jason Reinier punctuates the play with a flurry of slammed doors, footsteps, and spilling drinks hearkening back to the cozy days of radio drama. Between the silly songs, inventive soundscape, and dialogue that is gritty and awkward rather than clever and subtle, we never know exactly what theatrical world we've entered. Is it character-based realism, Beckett-esque symbolism, or a cartoon parody? Long might argue that such formal disorientation is central to his intention. And had he approached his characters with a little less contempt, perhaps these complexities would have proved more engaging. But he didn't, and in the end, we are left with working-class characters functioning as unsympathetic containers for windy existential concerns.

-- Carol Lloyd

Pictures of Lily
The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. By Jane Wagner. Directed by David Pangaro. Starring Brooks Oswald. At the University of San Francisco's Gill Theater, 2130 Fulton (at Cole), on an open-ended run. Call 422-6133.

Jane Wagner may be one of the most frequently quoted people on the Internet. The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, so full of single-line pieces of folk wisdom, thrives in slivers on home pages across the country. Wagner wrote Intelligent Life for Lily Tomlin, who performed it brilliantly enough on Broadway to scare off most imitators. Outside of Tomlin's video the show survives in fragments scattered in cyberspace, and in rare stage revivals like Brooks Oswald's at USF's Gill Theater.

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