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So I’m sitting halfway down the aisle at Arena Stage, the audience is howling because there’s a man dressed as a woman giving a reasonable facsimile of a blowjob to another man who’s pretending to watch Scarface on a wide-screen TV, and all I can think is, I can’t believe they’re doing this in front of Justice Ginsburg. But, I gather from the evidence of Radio Mambo, the three Los Angelenos who are Culture Clash probably wouldn’t hesitate to stage a Monica Lewinsky skit for an audience composed entirely of White House denizens—and now that I think about it, Justice Ginsburg, who’s sitting a few rows back and probably enjoying this as much as everyone else, has no doubt confronted less seemly scenes within the duties of her day job. Besides, Radio Mambo is funny, damnit, and Howard Stern shouldn’t be the only one getting away with coarseness for the sake of a laugh.
What Mambo is not, despite an impressive pedigree and Arena’s slick production, is profound. Created by the venerable Chicano theater ensemble and directed by the breathtakingly talented writer/actor Roger Guenveur Smith (A Huey P. Newton Story), this 90-minute laff riot is what might happen if Anna Deavere Smith went to Miami and left half of her seriousness and a good chunk of her restraint behind. Not that there isn’t a keen sociological eye at work in what Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas, and Herbert Siguenza have done: In broadly comic vignettes drawn from videotaped interviews they’ve digested and then—there’s no other word—regurgitated, they prove as perceptive about what creates the persistent divisions among Miami’s many communities as they are irreverent about the impossible ignorance and self-deception it’s all rooted in. There are the rabidly capitalist Cubano who explains that his people aren’t better than anyone else, just more innately qualified for success than Miamians from other ethnic groups; a transplanted New York Jew, concerned that the “very nice poor people” in his rapidly gentrifying neighborhood not be displaced; and a pair of hideously uninformed marrieds who clearly don’t think but probably do vote.
At its most riotous, the show simply puts our ugliest Americanisms front and center for us to laugh at—perhaps in the hope that we’ll laugh them so far into the margins that they’ll be forever devalued in the transactions of public discourse. At its best, it celebrates the oddball riches that result from the cultural cross-pollination that happens in the spaces—popular entertainment among them—where we can all get along already: A Latino matron, remembering the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, talks of hearing the Seminole ghosts that haunt her house, and fears she’s “beginning to sound a little like Shirley MacLaine.”
But for all its edge and all its energy, Mambo is undone to a large degree by the very brashness that gives it bite. If stereotypical attitudes are represented by walking cartoons, after all, audiences are all too easily off the hook: They’re never forced to look for the same weaknesses in their own characters. Radio Mambo may be fierce, and it’s certainly fun, but it’s not frightening—and isn’t that the ultimate point of this kind of exercise?
There’s an emu in the kitchen at Alice’s house—and the most disturbing thing about that development is that it’s the least disturbing development in a decidedly different afternoon. Caryl Churchill, the cerebral, contrary author of Mad Forest and Cloud Nine, is up to her usual structural tricks in Heart’s Desire, the first of two one-act plays bundled at Studio Theatre under the deliciously melancholy title Blue Heart. In an exercise in theatrical alchemy that’ll probably annoy as many patrons as it amuses, she takes the bland stuff of daily domesticity and works black magic on it. The formalist hoop-jumping may be too much for frazzled nine-to-fivers looking for a light evening at the theater, but Churchill doesn’t write for audiences who aren’t willing to do some of the work.
In Heart’s Desire, a family reunion keeps getting derailed by unexpected developments—blurted confessions, armed invasions, that emu—that send Alice (Catherine Flye) and her husband, Brian (Michael Tolaydo), staggering back to the start of what little action Churchill has written. Again and again, Alice sets a luncheon table, Brian checks his watch, their sot of a son (Jon Tindle) staggers in to vent his unhappiness, and Aunt Maisie (Cornelia Hart) laughs that irritating neigh of a laugh that always makes Alice look as if she’s inclined toward murder. Which is pretty much how even the theatrically open-minded will probably feel by the time Desire runs out: If Alice reaches for that silverware one more time, you’ll think, someone’s surely going to be made to bleed with it.
Churchill wants to get at the idea that our ordinary little lives are constantly being redirected in profound ways by events large and small, decisions under our control and beyond our ken, things said and thoughts left forever unspoken. But even with performances as comically adept as those Flye and Tolaydo turn in here, the play’s repetitions may be maddening enough to make even a Paula Vogel fan long for the comparatively uncomplicated plot devices of, say, Feydeau.
The word games of Blue Kettle, the evening’s second half, are subtle by comparison, and the playlet’s surprising emotional punch is like theatrical comfort food after the high-concept astrigencies that precede it. In the economically depressed London that frames so much contemporary British drama, a seemingly cruel young man (Tindle again) plays a deceptive game of “Are you my mother?” with a handful of middle-aged women, each of whom he’s fooled into thinking he’s the son she gave up for adoption decades before. As his girlfriend (an agreeably sharp-edged Michelle Shupe) threatens to upend things, and he himself stage-manages increasingly unwieldy encounters, Churchill begins to substitute crucial vocabulary with the words “blue” and “kettle.”
What’s remarkable is that, by the time his game unravels, amid a conversation composed almost entirely of those words and their fragmented syllables, you may be surprised to find yourself wanting him to carry his deception off—or at least to find a way of confessing that will let him maintain the oddly resonant relationships he’s developed with the women he set out to scam. Such is the seductive power of Churchill’s masterful construction and Tindle’s finely calibrated, delicately emotional performance. Both are supported by fine work from the company of mothers, not to mention an elegantly restrained production; Serge Seiden’s direction is appropriately understated, graceful, witty, and absolutely sure in its judgments about where we’ll want to laugh uncomfortably and where the play’s warmer emotions need room to take root. CP