Sherry Kramer begins her new comedy Nano and Niki in Boca Raton by having a series of hotel-room doors open just a crack, then slam shut as an offstage grandmother finds fault with accommodations she’s not yet seen. The ground-floor room, she tells her key-jangling granddaughter, is too exposed. Slam. The penthouse is a potential firetrap. Slam. The room at the end of the hall is…oh, who remembers, but you get the idea.
As Neil Simonesque setups go, it’s efficient enough. Amusing even. Who’d have dreamed, though, that the playwright who startled D.C. audiences with a peculiar, mystery-filled portrait of an abortive lesbian romance in David’s Redhaired Death and an almost Pirandellian farce about roommates in The Wall of Water would try to build an entire evening out of variations on that one joke?
Nano and Nicki, which is receiving its world premiere at the pocket-size Theater J, is a road-trek sitcom with one incessantly recycled sit—Nano complains, Nicki gets exasperated—and only the most rudimentary com. It chronicles a seemingly endless trip to Florida by its eponymous heroines, who bicker and reconcile in a series of interchangeable Howard Johnson hotels. In St. Louis, they argue about marriage; in Paducah, about welfare mothers; in Nashville, about shopping; in Orlando, about why they argue so much.
If either of them were articulate or insightful, they might be decent company for a couple of hours. But when obstinate Nano (Louise Reynolds) reveals herself to be a bigot, and sentimental Nicki (Melissa Flaim) proves too accommodating to do more than ignore Nano’s more odious opinions, there’s no reason to give them the benefit of the doubt. Between scenes, African-American actress Cynthia Webb provides room service, her casting providing a sense of how oblivious the producers are to racial stereotyping. All three actresses play more broadly than is really necessary in Theater J’s cramped quarters, but considering the paucity of the script, you can hardly blame them for pushing. Director Paul MacWhorter gets a few subsidiary chuckles with staging conceits—rotating the deliberately ugly hotel art a quarter turn for each new Howard Johnson’s his heroines visit—but the material doesn’t appear to have inspired him.
As the D.C. Jewish Community Center’s resident troupe, Theater J is still in the process of carving a niche for itself. Hampered by an auditorium scarcely larger than a living room, it has nonetheless produced several interesting new plays. But management has also shown a predilection for fluff of a decidedly low order, and has been unlucky enough to be rewarded with affirmative Washington Post reviews (generally by second-stringers) that have turned its least adventurous work into its biggest hits. Understandably, the company now includes at least one empty-headed sitcom in each season. Wild horses, nay…wild Ford Broncos couldn’t have dragged me last summer to its mounting of Social Security, an insipid aged-mother comedy I recall watching Marlo Thomas and Olympia Dukakis trying to flog into life at the National Theater years ago. Kramer’s authorship led me to hope that Nano and Nicki would be a more interesting take on similar material. It isn’t.
The title Metamorphoses suggests there will be more than one transformation in Michael D. Winn’s monologue about the headaches and heartaches faced by Randye, an African-American drag queen who wears that final vowel in his name as a badge of honor. But as performed by its personable young author at Anacostia’s 8Rock Arts Center, nothing really changes all evening except Randye’s clothes.
Winn has constructed the piece as an extended chat with the audience, centered on Randye’s living-room couch. The author assumes viewers will be astonished that a pleasant black man who has fathered a 4-year-old son, drinks malt liquor “40s,” and doesn’t hate his mother could be gay. Patrons who actually do find such a notion astonishing may well learn something from the evening, but for most viewers, Winn’s insights are going to seem decidedly nondescript.
The author’s strongest asset in performance is a facility at delivering scripted one-liners. When he notes that Randye’s mother “can work a nerve like nobody since Eve,” or comments that the malt liquor he keeps spilling “packs a force stronger than street trade you ain’t paid,” he possesses the detached assurance of a stand-up comic. But Metamorphoses is so loose and unstructured that he’s often stranded in improvisatory raps where he might as well have forgotten his lines. At one point, he tells a friend on the phone (at least half-a-dozen times in essentially unvarying language) to stop crying, then dissolves into tears himself, turns his face toward the cushions of his couch, and sobs for perhaps two minutes. The subtext here is AIDS, but that fact isn’t conveyed to the audience until later, which means the whole passage just feels self-indulgent. That’s also true of a long sequence—at least 10 minutes in the second act—in which patrons must sit quietly as the performer wordlessly applies false eyelashes, lipstick, and powder he might just as easily have donned during intermission.
Director Ed Bishop hasn’t done the performer any favors by allowing him to spend much of the evening harassing patrons into audience participation (Randye insists on audible replies to his rhetorical questions) or by letting him end every third sentence with a smug little chuckle, as if he’s just gotten off a good one. Also, if Winn never again utters the endearment“honey”—as in, “I’m tellin’ you, honey”—it’ll be too soon. He looks fine in his Diana Ross regalia, incidentally. But with other area stages sporting Rick Hammerly’s Bette Davis and Jeffrey V. Thompson’s deliriously oversize Tina Turner in real plays, there needs to be a better reason to take in Metamorphoses.