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Don’t you dare go to Project Y’s In the Boom Boom Room hoping for some raunchy scene out of Bangkok or Tony Soprano’s Bada Bing! Club. This play’s set in 1969 Philadelphia, mister, and even in 1969, Philadelphia still liked girl groups and Jean Nate bath splash and go-go dancers with tops firmly fastened, thank you very much.
And while we’re setting some ground rules: The only room you’ll find in Boom Boom exists inside heroine Chrissy’s head—tin-can-empty except for some wifty ambitions out of a high school yearbook. Oh, and David Rabe’s wild dialogue, which has that 2 a.m. lucidity you reach with a little help from a friend. Rabe, who’s known for his Vietnam trilogy (including Streamers) as well as the gleefully misogynistic Hurlyburly, let his unconscious off leash with the 1972 Boom Boom. Girls, gays, a racist, a fetishist, a child abuser, and a really bad mother all come out to play, and the only question is whether they’ll get to Chrissy before Chrissy’s vacuousness gets to you.
In pigtails, boots, and a white leather minidress, Chrissy (Sarah Anika Nelson) looks like a cross between Pippi Longstocking and Barbarella. She plies her exotic-dance trade at Tom’s Boom Boom Room, where the “girls” interpret all the wet-dream-classic routines (the Pony, the Monkey, the Jerk) with the buoyancy of cheerleaders. But “Chrissy from Manayunk” (as she’s introduced) wants to go to New York and become an artist. (Was that goal ever not a cliche#?) “I have dances in my head,” she says proudly. You never get to see those dances, though—just a woman barely out of high school whining about how she can’t figure out her own personality.
Although Chrissy constantly thinks about herself, she can’t think for herself. She’s really still a child, catatonically indecisive and fascinated with her slightest reactions. “Sometimes I’m afraid of thunder, or lightning, or big dogs,” she says with wonder. And her social skills are stuck in kindergarten, too: This is a woman who starts carrying around a Thermos of coffee so she can make friends by offering it around. (Her father, Harold, beautifully played by Scott McCormick, helpfully advises that she pack cream and sugar against contingency.)
Naturally, Chrissy’s drawn to astrology, although she has a quite a time of it keeping everybody’s sign straight. Her own doesn’t help much, either: “I am supposed to be having a very good day, so shut up!” she tells Eric (Sam Elmore), a lover she met at the club. To her lover Al’s (Grady Weatherford) suggestion that they bonded when he watched her onstage, she says, “I was looking at you, wasn’t I?” The gal’s as malleable as taffy.
Which is why everybody else in Boom Boom is attracted to her: They project their fantasies onto her blankness. Al, Eric, Al’s pal Ralphie (James O. Dunn), and the dancers’ manager, Susan (Diane Cooper), all want to sleep with her. Her gay downstairs neighbor Guy (Dan Via) wants both of them to sleep with other people and then meet up later to bitch about it. Even Harold, trying to explain to his wife (Kate Debelack) why he abused Chrissy when she was young, defends himself by saying: “Even at that age, you could tell that she wanted it.”
That line—perhaps freshly distasteful at one point, but now too familiar to shock—says a lot about the limitations of Boom Boom. Whereas its characters might once have opened eyes on middlebrow Broadway, today they’re tame enough for CBS. But some of the performances do measure up to Rabe’s wacko lyricism. As Al chats with Chrissy, for instance, Dunn’s sweaty Ralphie stands behind her, afraid to brush a trembling finger down her neck. “Life is like World War II,” he says mysteriously, asking Al if he can have at Chrissy after him. Later, he steals Chrissy’s clothes and forces her to drink a vial of his blood. In a peasant shirt, he’s halfway between Easy Rider and Blue Velvet.
Elmore’s smart-but-dumb Eric puffs like a hospital humidifier when he’s upset and otherwise does a nice George Costanza impression as he improbably matches Chrissy’s self-involvement. (“I look at you and I want to blink my eyes,” Chrissy tells him, with characteristic tact.) Cooper’s feminist Susan tells a great guns-and-butter story that has nothing to do with federal spending priorities. And McCormick shines as Harold, a charmer who enters his daughter’s psychic space at will and serves up serene poetry, even about not being able to take a piss. “The jolly excitement sometimes when I used to beat youse wid my belt…” he tells her, making it sound like a day at the circus.
Less convincing is Nelson, whose default mode is loud and flat and who underplays too many laugh lines. Even though a ditzy, manic Chrissy might have seemed overly conventional, the script supports it. (Think the dreaded Sandra Bullock, even though the forthcoming film of Boom Boom will star Patricia Arquette.) Nelson reads Chrissy as more dull-witted than exuberant, and she fails to connect the character’s dots—her declaiming style makes it seem as if she’s starting over every five minutes. Chrissy’s hard to take as it is, and Nelson doesn’t make her any easier.
And although Boom Boom has mondo camp potential, this production falls short in the outrageousness department. (Ben Premeaux’s set offers a lot of promise: bead curtains and red velvet swag and a metal pole framework that looks like an external fixator—not for a broken bone, but the broken world of the play.) Amit Prakash’s musical choices well up too seldom, and director Michole Biancosino doesn’t effectively knit together the play’s snapshotlike scenes or interpose any contemporary sensibility. She goes, for instance, straight from Chrissy’s excitement at being engaged to Al to the disastrous marriage itself, as if that kind of irony were new.
But Rabe’s Boom Boom does two things really well. First, it depicts the predatory self-centeredness that often hid behind ’60s individualism. Second, it shows, in a very emotionally immediate way, how difficult it used to be for women to define themselves outside of men. Have things changed? If you go to In the Boom Boom Room, a lot of good young actors will leave you to come up with the answer yourself. CP