One of the most inspiring pieces of writing I've read all year came my way in response to a tongue-in-cheek blog post I wrote last May about our mad multitasking culture. A reader sent a link to a college commencement speech given by Samantha Power earlier that month in which the Pulitzer Prize–winning author offered students a list of pointers about how to accomplish their dreams, or, as she put it, to “make what is possible real.” The part of the speech that began “Be sure to create quiet time so you maximize the chances you will be able to hear your gut when it speaks to you” resonated particularly strongly with me, given that my blog post concerned the strange side effects caused by the ubiquity of Bluetooth headsets. “If I am not mistaken, the shower is now the only place we are guaranteed to have time to ourselves,” Power wrote. “And soon, undoubtedly, our iPods will be waterproof and our cell phones will be devised to drown out the shower current and to amplify the human voice.”
So it was interesting, four months on, to hear a character in dramatist-director Steve Morgan Haskell's overstuffed and noisy new play intoning these very words. I clung to this echo of my Bluetooth blog post for the rest of the drama like a business executive to his BlackBerry: Power's practical, streamlined prose offered one of the few palatable entry points into a play that otherwise bites off more than it can chew.
All You Can Eat is one of those dramas that is at once easy and difficult to decipher. The overall message of the play — which takes place backstage at the ballroom of the French Institute in Edinburgh, Scotland, shortly before an American rock band's reunion concert — can pretty much be summarized in a single quote spoken by band frontman Alexander: “What do I find wrong with America? Everything.” On the other hand, in an attempt to illustrate this pessimistic, hardly revolutionary opinion via his world premiere collaboration with foolsFURY theater company (which I witnessed at its final preview), Haskell slaps together a veritable all-you-can-eat buffet of underseasoned, congealed ideas. I can't pretend to have detected all the ingredients he combines to create this heavy yet unfilling theatrical stew. But some of the most obvious critiques of U.S. culture and society the play superficially proffers include the populace's persistent fascination with the lowbrow and obsession with cleanliness, the role of rock stars as modern messiahs, and the nation's involvement in the Iraq war. A couple of the themes would potentially make for interesting drama if approached individually. I, for one, would be fascinated to see a play that explored the tension between the dirty politics of this country and its mania for maintaining a germ-free environment.
But the proliferation of bewildering, half-baked themes only becomes more impenetrable when matched by Haskell's approach to staging the play. Clichés flop on top of one another like bodies at the tail end of an all-night orgy. Brian Livingston's broodingly enigmatic Alexander follows a long line of destined-to-die-young rock music bards from Jim Morrison to Kurt Cobain. The remaining band members strut and pout like Mick Jagger clones. In the role of the band's lead guitarist, musician Tracy Welsh noodles incessantly on his instrument, hashing out tired Led Zep–like riffs. Matt Sesow's painted murals at the back of the mostly bare stage are equally derivative — the brightly colored, toothy figures, though well executed, remind us of the graffiti of dorm room favorite Jean-Michel Basquiat.
The drama shuttles erratically between different eras in the characters' lives. On occasion, the band members earnestly act out their current obsessions (one character declares her love for Power; another has a Tourette's-like predilection for singing cereal commercial jingles). Elsewhere, we glimpse them at various stages of their previous development, such as the beginnings of the homosexual relationship between the lead singer and the drummer.
However, the past and present at best seem only tangentially related, and an overwhelming sense of randomness prevails. Every now and again, the performers break into expressionistic interpretive dance motifs or perform snatches of inane songs. Elsewhere they invoke the titles of various heavyweight tomes, from Don DeLillo's White Noise to Dante's Inferno. Meanwhile, the band's songlist reads like a bad Beat poem: “coffee in person, a tiny flower, Roland Barthes spills his pudding, suicide swirl, fish stick, aberrations of time and movement, colonized, frozen sky, happy happy happy.”
Even the play's locale seems disconnected from the action. The opening monologue, in which Michelle Haner appears in the guise of Democracy in America author Alexis de Tocqueville's great-great-great-great-great-niece, is intended, I guess, to draw a line between the old world and the new. But whatever point Haskell is trying to make gets lost in the distracting business of watching Haner cradle her infant son through most of her long, French-accented monologue. Young Morgan Albrecht Haskell (whose father is the production's author) may make a stellar Hamlet one day. But for now, his presence onstage feels gimmicky. As a result, all we can conclude from the Scottish setting is that it provides the actors with an excuse to outfit themselves in modish rockabilly kilts.
That the play's ideas skitter erratically before our eyes like a kid with Attention Deficit Disorder is very likely a deliberate ruse on Haskell's part. After all, the play's fast-food aesthetics perfectly embody his vision of the sort of culture that would embrace the idea of a shower-safe iPod. But the marriage of theme and form backfires. If only the dramatist were as direct and solution-oriented as Power was in front of those students back in May. Sadly, the pessimism and opacity of the production sit heavily in our bellies.