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If you’re the sort who gets the pun in—and gets a giggle out of—a phrase as felicitous as “candor and Ebb,” by all means trot on over to the Gunston Arts Center to see Philadelphia 76°!, the latest production of Monday Night Theatre. It’s an outrageously giddy new bit of stream-of-consciousness from “Hiawatha Lopez,” the pseudonymous creator of Burn This Too, which provoked chuckles and groans in equal measure when it ran at Church Street Theater back in 1991.
That desperately punny show dealt, in part, with a missing document sometimes referred to as “Paul’s letter to the Fallopians”; Philadelphia, which is nothing if not equally intoxicated with the contortionist possibilities of non sequitur and malapropism, concerns itself (barely) with one character’s quest to deliver a white paper on vehicular motivation at a Mothers Against Drowsy Drivers convention in “the City of Brotherly Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name.”
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The decidedly oddball characters wind up addressing a Bicentennial gathering of the American Legion instead, which has nothing to do with dramatic unity or ideological coherence, but does at least give the author the opportunity to write such cheerfully abrasive songs as “Let’s Conquer Canada (And Liberate Quebec)” and “Legionnaire’s Disease.” Oh, I’m sorry; didn’t I mention it’s a musical? Gleeful vulgarity and wanton inanity are the order of the day is long, and the performances aren’t particularly polished off, though two actors (Jeff Obermiller and Susan Linthicum) do have sweet singing voices and the rudiments of engaging stage presence. Anyway, it’s hard to dislike any show that pokes fun at the intellectual defensiveness of students at the University of Pennsylvania, which Philadelphia does mercilessly in a scatological little ditty that opens with the lyric, “At the bottom of the Ivy, where the dogs and drunkards pee.”
There’s a kind of mad genius to Lopez’s method, even if the result is uneven, and under all the ribaldry lies a very human sense of compassion (though admittedly it surfaces only rarely). It’s not for the Beauty and the Beast crowd, but if you’ve ever wondered what might happen if Tom Stoppard developed Tourette’s and decided to self-medicate with amphetamines, Philadelphia 76°! is probably about as close to an answer as you’re ever likely to get.
There are certainly a few tiresome moments out at Gunston, but at least there’s an intelligent effort being made at inventiveness. There’s nothing whatsoever redeeming about Theatre Du Jour’s Tower of Babel, a loathsome piece of pretentious claptrap masquerading as deep thought. In his program notes, director B. Stanley claims that this collaborative effort draws on “biblical scholars[hip], archaeology, debates among the clergy from the 1700s, and the kabala,” but his audience might be forgiven for suspecting that Tower of Babel represents nothing more thoughtful than an attempt by cynical performance artists to see how far patrons of alternative theater can be led down the garden path.
While Stanley plonks away arhythmically on a wooden slat drum, three burlap-clad performers stalk about the black-box space at the District of Columbia Arts Center, creating a grating sort of counterpoint with grunts, moans, wails, and occasional disjointed nonsense phrases liberated from texts in several languages (“When the Saints Go Marching In” figures prominently, for whatever reason). They spend quite a while arranging a collection of slender wooden poles in various angular configurations on the floor and tiptoeing balletically around them; at one point it looks as though they might break into a fit of Highland dancing, though nothing so entertaining ever transpires. Eventually, they hit upon the notion of raising a sort of tall triangular edifice, which when completed inspires many flights of rapture. Babel, tower, the innocent beauty of collaboration; yeah, so what?
Things reach a climax when the three decide to go in for a joint round of idolatry with their beach balls, which until now they’ve kept in burlap sacks and cooed over privately in their individual corners. Discord erupts when they discover that their beach balls are of different colors, and soon enough the tepee has been pulled down. Babel, the tower destroyed, innocence defiled; yeah, so what? Stanley insists that this bilge “invokes the essence of fable, disputing why an ancient god scattered humanity across the globe and confounded their tongues” and claims that it poses the question: “Is the illusion of unity dangerously more destructive?” It’s difficult to ponder such notions with due gravity, however, when they’re being presented by performers wearing burlap-wrapped cardboard cubes on their heads, and neither the spiritually inclined nor the agnostic is likely to be inclined to devote much energy to the effort. Stanley’s smokescreen of jargon notwithstanding, Tower of Babel is hooey in any language.CP