Stage

Government Work
An American Daughter. By Wendy Wasserstein. Directed by Amy Glazer. Starring Stephanie Dunnam, Judyann Elders, Carl Weintraub, and Steven Marvel. Presented by the TheatreWorks at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, Castro & Mercy, Mountain View, through Sept. 20. Call (650) 903-6000.

"I like that Wendy Wasserstein," an older woman was overheard saying at the California premiere of An American Daughter in Mountain View, "but did she have to bring in gays?" Well, no, she didn't; but since her newest play is about Washington politics, Wasserstein does try to be inclusive. There's the gay conservative media star, the snappy and sex-driven New Feminist, the nostalgic ex-New Left professor, the ambitious TV newsman, the elderly Republican senator, his uptight fourth wife, and his baby-boomer daughter, Lyssa, who's married to the professor and considers herself part of the first generation of American women to reject housewifely duties in favor of ambitious careers. Lyssa's been nominated for surgeon general; she has a chance to be the first woman in history to take that post, and the play shows the politics blocking her way. It rises above the cartoonery you might expect from a cast of types -- it feels smart, like a Doonesbury cartoon -- but no matter how much idealism a playwright attaches to it, the quest for a government job just isn't interesting enough to fuel a nearly three-hour show.

The story takes details from the careers of Hillary Clinton and (ex-Surgeon General) Joycelyn Elders, but Lyssa has been carefully defined as neither one: She's a fifth-generation granddaughter of Ulysses S. Grant. (By odd coincidence, in this production her black Jewish doctor friend, Judith, is played by one Judyann Elders, no relation to the ex-Cabinet member.) Lyssa's first TV interview sours because the gay conservative opens his mouth about a jury summons that she once failed to answer, so Lyssa and her family brace for a backlash against her nomination; but the backlash comes from housewives across the Midwest, who don't like an offhand comment she made about "ice-box-cake and pimento-cheese-canape moms." So Lyssa has to defend herself as a privileged senator's daughter who's neglected some domestic duties for the sake of her career. The way she does it is Hillary-like: She goes on TV with a girlish headband and spouts pious nonsense about The Family. The story feels strong, but stuck between satire and drama: I wanted more wicked humor milked from the recognizable Washington types, or else more humanity. Wasserstein leans in the humanity direction, but the actors in this show aren't lively enough to follow.

The two main women, Lyssa and her friend Judith, are played well enough by Stephanie Dunnam and Elders -- they deliver their crucial speeches with unobtrusive feeling -- but Carl Weintraub can be sickeningly sentimental as Lyssa's husband, Walter, and Steve Marvel does a stand-up comedian's impression of a tart gay man. Robert Parnell is solid as the Senator Alan Hughes, but overall the cast hasn't found an organic rhythm for the lines: They come out stiffly, like dry sticks. The stiffness fades at the middle when the story gets interesting, but it resurfaces after Lyssa's last big speech on TV, when the story should wind down; but instead it drags on for another few scenes. An American Daughter has all the wit of a Doonesbury cartoon but none of its blessed brevity.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Bring on the Clowns
Fool Moon. Created and performed by Bill Irwin and David Shiner, with live music by the Red Clay Ramblers. At ACT's Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), through Oct 4. Call 749-2228.

Like a clueless guest, the show arrives early. Minutes after 8, David Shiner hurries down the aisle and scrambles across a row of patrons. At the end of the row, he finds his seat -- taken. Shiner stares down the interloper and, when that doesn't dislodge him, whacks him with his program. Meanwhile, Bill Irwin quietly slips in front of the stage's curtain to introduce the show, but his mike starts screaming. Stuffing the equipment behind the curtain, he catches his fingers in the mike holder.

When eventually a voice comes over the intercom to "present" ACT's Fool Moon, it's like Godot arriving on the set of Beckett's play to find that everyone had come to enjoy waiting. Except for a few very funny, anticlimactic routines together, Irwin's troubles preparing to perform and Shiner's wrangling of the audience in place of performing turn out to be the performance. The theatrical enchantment the clowns haplessly work toward is always just out of reach; in its place, they give us something more valuable.

If he talked, Irwin would be a sweet mumbler. He's part Harpo, part Groucho, part Keaton, part Chaplin. Unable to coordinate his legs for a dance number, he discovers his vest is buttoned crooked. That explains it! He whirls the vest all around his torso without taking it off. These convolutions are Irwin's way of getting somewhere simply. Once the vest is frontways and upright again, he buttons it up properly and begins to dance. For him, as for many of us, the only way between two points is roundabout.

Shiner is a Daffy Duck of a man. A squawker when anyone's in his way (and they always are), he somehow gets everyone to be as happily docile as he is grouchily aggressive. He knows what counts, so he never stops making fun of the audience members he hauls into his acts for clowning badly. Meanwhile, he gets amazing performances out of them. Sometimes the bits are short: A husband and wife pose for a picture, with Shiner soon replacing the husband with a man he thinks more qualified. Sometimes the sketches are elaborate: Playing a director, Shiner orchestrates a silent film filled with violence, passion, and four eager, frightened recruits. Whatever the scenario, Shiner plays both with and against the audience, insulting and flattering us in turn.

Fool Moon reminds you what a clown is good for, and most especially for whom: not just those of us who can't help slipping on peanuts, but also anyone who's ever wanted to be loved for her foolishness.

-- Apollinaire Scherr

Now That's What I Call "Fringe"
"Seventh Annual Fringe Festival, A Marathon of Theater." By various performers, at five different downtown venues. Headquartered at the Exit Theater, 156 Eddy (between Taylor and Mason), through Sept. 20. Call 673-3847, or check www.sffringe.org.

It's a measure of how far California's anti-smoking hysteria has gone that an oaf in the audience of a Fringe Fest production can feel free to ask Dorothy Parker (of all the characters you can imagine smoking onstage) not to light up. "Please don't light that cigarette," the man said, as Parker settled in to tell a story. Mary Bennett, playing Parker, didn't miss a beat. "Here you are then darling," she said, leaning over to hand him the smoldering cigarette, so he could smash it out. A few moments later she teased him with a rhyme about lighting a fresh one -- "Just kidding."

Not all of Dorothy Parker ... Shivering and Sighing is that good, because its straight story-reciting doesn't work onstage; but when Bennett talks to the audience, or recites a Parker poem, or does 1/2 of a dialogue in a speak-easy with an invisible man (as in "Just a Little One"), she admirably inhabits the swing-era literary moll, with all her decadent weariness and jealous wit.

Still, cigarette controversy aside, Bennett's hardly as fringe as this fest gets.

Up From the Ground is a one-man collection of irreal characters, including a monkey astronaut, a sleeping pig, a dead Elvis waiting on the Highway of Eternity in a limousine, and Jesus, paired with a hallucinatory, evil monkey named Jungle Belle. The title piece is about a vivid Southern family entranced and terrified by some holy flowerlike thing growing in their cornfield. It's hilarious and elegant and really, really weird. Dan Carbone has rare gifts as an actor and writer; even his oddest noises, chants, and stories seem logical, which is exactly the sort of weirdness you hope to see at a Fringe Festival.

Simple oddness isn't enough, though. Killing My Lobster Gets Some Action was touted as weird and funny in the Sunday Chronicle but turns out to be weird and tepid, in spite of good acting by Mara Gerstein.

Bret Parker's Underneath the Power Lines involves jerky, dancelike movement in front of urban-landscape film footage, while vaguely political babble plays on a soundtrack; the effect is not so much rebellious or stark as narcissistic. Paired with Power Lines is E. Azzura's Simone Alone, also a movement piece but more whimsical; it takes its story and title character from George Bataille's novel, The Story of the Eye, about strange adolescent sex. The story helps unify the piece and we do get to see Azzura naked, but because Bataille's novel itself is narcissistic, Simone Alone can't escape the same description.

Butt Pirates of the Caribbean lives up to its hype as the most outrageous show of the festival, full of gaudy bad taste and high-energy slapstick about gay sailors and a pirate captain who "looks like Gunsmoke's Miss Kitty." The actors are not just strange or rude but effectively strange and rude -- meaning talented -- so that even I was appalled. And I would recommend the Butt Pirates' framed human derrieres expelling a yellowish cloud up to the theater's rafters to the man who complained about Dorothy Parker's cigarette. Nobody smokes in this show (although smoking is quite legal on a California stage), so he should be perfectly comfortable.

-- Michael Scott Moore

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