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The road to hell is paved with good intentions—but some road crews are better than others. When Arena Stage commissioned the California troupe Culture Clash to develop an ear-to-the-ground theater piece about Washington, it surely wanted something more than the cultural tourism, smug self-indulgence, and disconnected acting exercises of Anthems: Culture Clash in the District.

After two years of interviewing D.C. area residents, Richard Montoya and his Culture Clash colleagues regurgitate in Anthems what seems like every one of those conversations. But though they get everything down, they convey absolutely nothing of importance. Anthems is a mile wide and an inch deep: If it were a Metro passenger, it still wouldn’t know enough to stand to the right.

Culture Clash, a performance trio consisting of Montoya, Ricardo Salinas, and Herbert Siguenza (who does not appear in Anthems), has made this kind of city survey a subspecialty. (Miami and San Diego/Tijuana were previous victims.) The group usually works alone—but for Anthems, Montoya and Salinas have at their disposal an ensemble cast that helps them play innumerable characters in at least 30 separate vignettes about District life. Montoya is clearly first among equals, however, and it’s an index of the impoverished imagination behind the play that he casts himself as a playwright from a performance trio named Culture Clash that’s come to D.C. to write a play commissioned by Arena Stage…

In an LAX bar waiting for his flight to Dulles a few days after Sept. 11, Montoya’s Playwright meets Ben Bull (Jay Patterson), a self-described “grief counselor from Arlington, Texas,” who’s also on his way to Washington, to help families of those who died at the Pentagon. Hearing about the Playwright’s project gets Bull fired up. He tells Montoya to make the play “continuous”—which one takes to mean “having continuity.” (If he only knew.) “Make sure there’s an anthem for us, an anthem for the regular guys,” Bull instructs. Yes, sir. Even more improbably, though, Montoya gloms on to Bull’s dictum as his organizing principle.

For 100 minutes, the audience lurches with the Playwright through encounter after encounter, hostage to his increasingly anguished search for an anthem that can fit everybody. It’s a kind of nightmare of multiculturalism, and rarely do the interviews hold your interest for more than a minute (if they last that long). Patterson appears briefly and affectingly as a pilot killed on Sept. 11 who (now in heaven) says in a monotone: “If I could cry, I would cry 10 lifetimes for the smoothness of the stones I skipped across the water [as a boy].” Joseph Kamal does well as Montoya’s Palestinian-Jordanian cabbie Mohammed, a man whose children “worship Allah and Nike.”

The rest of Anthems, however, is like a handful of loose threads that somebody’s passing off as cashmere. Here’s a fiber-optic technician (Shona Tucker) who dreams of dancing with Abraham Lincoln. Here’s a Wally Cox-like art director for the GOP (Salinas) who keeps asking if the Playwright has been to Eastern Market. Here’s a white guy in camo with a rifle (Patterson), an illegal-immigrant mime (Salinas), some vapid cheerleaders for the Wizards—and now here’s Billie Holiday (Nikki Jean) singing “Strange Fruit”!

What isn’t here is shape, coherence, art. It apparently never occurred to Montoya & Co. that five minutes of a play that explored and intertwined three or four of these characters would be far more insightful and moving than this undigested collage. (Their one stab at a theatrical moment—when Mohammed and White Guy With Rifle simultaneously speak the same lines about their paranoia after 9/11—is embarrassingly overobvious.) Under the flurry of Culture Clash’s busy transcription lies an essential laziness, an unwillingness

to choose.

And because Anthems doesn’t have character development or a single compelling insight about the District to hook us, it instead repeatedly exploits the ready-made emotions surrounding the terrorist attacks. In the worst of these vignettes, Bill Grimmette suddenly appears as a retired naval officer who visits the Pentagon wreckage to see where his daughter died. As Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” swells up, the officer (accompanied by Ben Bull) looks out into the audience and delivers a shaky salute, his face crumbling. The moment could have been the zenith of the character’s arc, but since we’ve just met him, it comes off as a bizarre, even cheap moment. You’re watching the fact of Grimmette’s performance instead of connecting with it.

Indeed, when it comes to affect, Culture Clash usually reaches for the sledgehammer. For instance, Bull declares that he’s counseled a grieving family with “a girl who runs up to every firefighter and thinks it’s her daddy,” and then the playwrights can’t resist having him quickly add: “That hits you right here.” Well, it did until you said that.

To be fair, Anthems can be funny, although not nearly as much as it imagines. Montoya opens the play doing stand-up as Tian-Tian, the National Zoo panda, who’s having a Steven Wright-like breakdown about his smoking habit, his secret homosexuality, and his low federal pay grade. (The zoo’s reptiles, he complains, are all GS-15s.)

The routine amuses for a while—and then keeps going twice as long as it should; it’s one promising idea Culture Clash milks beyond empty before discarding. There are also far too many inside jokes about Arena Stage, along with a bunch of easy potshots at the rich, the right, and the white that smack of impotent liberalism in the age of W.

Montoya’s Playwright loses cell-phone reception late in Anthems and then complains about spotty coverage in Southwest. Nice touch. But it’s about all that passes here for the sustained political and economic critique you might expect from a work that purports to be taking the temperature of the District.

For a piece by a group with the name and transgressive reputation of Culture Clash, Anthems is dismayingly conventional, both conceptually and theatrically. The entirely comfortable proceedings not only lack any surprise, they have a distinctly recycled quality: Salinas’ caricature of the way different ethnicities dance salsa feels cribbed, and local poet and musician Psalmayene 24 suddenly performs his original song “Fly” even though it has no relation to anything.

Director Charles Randolph-Wright has little to do but keep the talent show moving crisply. Set designer Alexander V. Nichols provides a backdrop of columns on pulleys that make up a huge $5 bill; they keep getting hoisted and lowered in different combinations throughout the show, as if a point is being made about Lincoln’s legacy or the mutability of filthy lucre. And Anne Kennedy’s attractive ash-gray costumes should have been saved for a smarter production.

As Anthems staggers to a conclusion (after Montoya delivers himself of a pseudo-Beat poem that references Sitting Bull, Che Guevara, Augusto Pinochet, Zacharias Moussaoui, and Larry the Arena Stage parking-lot supervisor), the Playwright learns from a mysterious woman (Tucker) that the sound of a Metro train pulling into the Waterfront station has exactly the same pitch as the beginning note of a Miles Davis solo. “The train keeps rolling,” she says portentously. “Life keeps rolling, and continuous.”

You’ve got to be kidding, Culture Clash. The whole point of theater is to stop life so we can look at it. But then again, Anthems bears as superficial a resemblance to theater as it does to life in D.C. Only a tourist could mistake it for the real thing. CP