If “stupid is as stupid does,” as the decade’s leading authority on the subject is wont to remark, then the change-seeking title character in Wendy Hammond’s sitcom Julie Johnson does not qualify as stupid. She sure is slow, though.
Slow to wake up. Slow to act. Slow to move forward. Slow enough that audiences are likely to start reinventing her before she gets a chance to do the job herself. Hammond’s play is all about taking responsibility, taking charge, and taking chances, but what the evening is mostly taking, in its Horizons Theatre premiere, is its own sweet time.
The opening moments set the tone. The lights come up on Julie (Rachel Gardner) crumpled on her living room floor in tears. For perhaps 15 seconds, she hugs herself and sobs. Deep, quasi-silent, depths-of-despair-type sobs. Then the lights go down.
A moment later, they come up again. Julie’s still on the floor, but now her adolescent children, Frankie (Lee Hagy) and Lisa (Emily Eckenrod), are begging her to tell them what’s wrong. She doesn’t answer. They plead. She just sobs. They ask to see the scrap of paper she’s clutching in her fist. She sobs. The lights go down.
They come up again, and now Julie’s best friend Claire (Emily Townley) has joined the kids. She too asks Julie what’s wrong. The kids say, “Mom’s not talking.” Claire sends the kids away. Julie’s still not talking. Claire keeps prodding. After perhaps five minutes, she finally gets Julie to acknowledge her presence. “What’s wrong?” Claire asks for perhaps the 20th time.
“I don’ wanna be stupid no more,” gulps Julie.
Claire wonders what brought this on, and Juliewe are now, remember, a good 10 minutes into the playreplies, “A lotta things…you gotta take my word for it.”
Someone is stalling here, and by this time it will have dawned on even the dimmest audience member that it may not be the title character. In her own self-deprecating way, Julie will turn out to be something of a firebranddetermined, despite her abusive husband’s opposition, to get a high-school equivalency certificate (that scrap of paper in her fist is a class enrollment form), to go on to college even if her children ridicule her, and to find love even if it means alienating her best friend. In fact, at times it seems the only person capable of holding Julie back is playwright Hammond, who remains insistent about her leading character’s frontal-lobe numbness far longer than is either necessary or dramatically wise.
As entirely too many TV shows seem hellbent on establishing these days, dumb can be appealing. Whether that’s because inarticulate characters bring out viewers’ parenting instincts, or because audience members like to feel superior and lowest-common-denominator programming requires serious dumbing-down for that to happen, it’s a fact of contemporary entertainment.
Hammond, though, appears to be operating on the assumption that if dumb is cute, then a whole stage full of dumb must be adorable. Hence, Julie’s 14-year-old daughter can’t imagine why her mother would want to divest herself of an abusive spouse, Claire and Julie can’t manage between them to balance a checkbook, and a night school professor who wants to illustrate the enormousness of the first computers does so by drawing one with a dinosaur’s head and feet. A little of this goes rather a long way toward undercutting the play’s more serious elements.
About the only person on the premises who seems to have much innate common sense is young Frankie, whoas played winningly by Hagyseems wise beyond his years, at least until he’s confronted with issues of sexual politics that briefly confuse him. It’s hard to be more precise without giving away major plot points (and the play needs all the intrigue it can muster), so let’s leave that alone. In any event, after a bit of pouting, he comes around.
Eventually, so do most of the others, but not before engaging in lengthy discussionson such topics as infidelity, peanut butter, high-school cliques, lesbianism, chaos theory, and ant farmsthat might charitably be described as, well…let’s just call them oversimplified.
So, we should be spending time with these folks in the theater because…what? Because they mean well? Because they’re struggling with age-old issues of self-worth? Because their lack of information makes them vulnerable? Because their lack of curiosity makes them intriguing? Well, sure, I guess. But shouldn’t someone be making the case that their journey into the light ought to have something to say to patrons who’ve already made that journey? That something instructive could conceivably be gleaned from watching these characters struggle to reach, say, the level of intellectual curiosity required to buy a ticket to a theatrical event called Julie Johnson?
Hammond, for the most part, doesn’t make that case, though she provides a certain amount of incidental amusement to take its place. And Jane Latman’s staging takes advantage of every whiff of comedy it can. Gardner (who plays Julie as a social klutz) and Townley (who makes Claire a brassy, trashy hoot) sometimes seem to be trying for a low-rent Absolutely Fabulous feel in their scenes together. The family sequences play like Roseanne episodes. When Julie visits her prof, the show briefly becomes a Hoboken-accented version of Educating Rita. And a moment in which two characters have the equivalent of phone sex while sitting side by side on a park bench wouldn’t be at all out of place in Everything Relative.
In short, despite the drawbacks of the play itself, there’s something in the production for most segments of the audience that Horizons Theatre, which bills itself as “theater from a woman’s perspective,” has been serving for the past 20 years. The company is coming out of a hibernation of sorts, having been widely presumed dead when it took last season off to strengthen its financial base and rethink its operations. After intensive consultation with the miracle-workers at Arlington’s Cultural Affairs Division, it has emerged from the darkness restructured, revivified, andlike the heroine of this first attractionless prone to trembling at the challenges ahead.
As an admirer of the physicality that marks the work of the French-language troupe Le Neon, I was looking forward to the company’s first attempt to bring a comic strip to life. Becassine, Caumery’s celebrated Breton peasant, and her Candidelike journeys through pre-WWII society, seems a natural selection for the company, which frequently creates new scripts from odd materials.
In the event, however, Becassine is something of a disappointment. Co-directed by adaptor Colette Alexis and Le Neon founder Didier Rousselet, the evening is billed as a family event, but it’s more nearly children’s theater, and even at that, not really of the liveliest sort.
Framed by comparatively naturalistic variations on a game of red light/green light, with destitute-looking immigrants doing the playing, the play’s center section is all bright colors and chirpy adventures. Becassine (wide-eyed Dominique Montet), a naif who is at once ferociously inquisitive and distressingly gullible, arrives in Paris and is astonished by nearly everything she sees. Her adventures include riding a streetcar and being a nanny to a countess’s infant (enchantingly gurgled into life by actress Kristjana Knight) before embarking for New York and a series of somewhat more alarming dilemmas. She encounters scoundrels and thieves, is merrily confused by American expressions”Time is money?” “Hold-up?”and always saves the day, mostly inadvertently.
Day-glo colors and a nifty rolling platform that converts effortlessly from a trolley to an office are nice touchespart of a setting that’s as close to two-dimensional (a narrow strip with audience on either side) as can reasonably be managed in Le Neon’s storefront theater. But the company doesn’t so much conjure up a flat world of comic-strip characters as flatten out a theatrical experience with even flatter dialogue (in both English and French), so that one’s attention is forever being drawn to the dimension that’s missing.CP