Theatre in Review: 3C (Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre)
What if there was a revisionist version of Three's Company, in which Jack, the John Ritter character, was a tormented, closeted gay; Chrissy (Suzanne Somers to you) was promiscuous, thanks to a history of sexual abuse; and Janet (Joyce DeWitt) suffered from crippling sexual inhibitions and body image issues? That's the premise of 3C, in which David Adjmi breathlessly brings us the news that a 36-year-old television sitcom is loaded with antediluvian notions in need of deconstruction.
In Adjmi's version of Three's Company, only the names have been changed. Most of the action is lifted from the series' pilot (which, in turn, was taken from the pilot of Man About the House, the BBC series from which Three's Company was adapted.) Linda and Connie, surveying the wreckage of their apartment after a going-away party for their roommate, are stunned when a naked man enters from the kitchen. He is Brad, a culinary student who has been living with Terry, a randy neighbor. Anyway, before you can finish singing "Come and knock on our door," Brad is living with the girls, and Mr. Wicker, the landlord, having seen Brad in a ladies' nightgown -- don't ask -- has concluded that Brad is gay.
Except that there's no deception, because Brad, a Vietnam veteran, is tortured by his sexual orientation. His family has kicked him out, and he's terrified to confess the truth to anyone else. He's also longing for Terry, a preening Lothario, who, apparently unaware of Brad's true nature, sexually teases him without mercy. (Their scenes together practically vibrate with homosexual tension.) Meanwhile, Connie natters on, detailing her vast history with men, and when a guy whom Linda really likes calls her up for a date, she slips into a fugue state.
In Adjmi's version of what used to be known as jiggle television, rapid-fire dialogue alternates with pained confessions, passages of unredeemably hateful behavior, and long sequences of disco dancing. Mr. Wicker shows up and forces Linda to let him manually stimulate her; clearly, it isn't the first time. Later, Wicker terrorizes Brad, making him take part in an exchange of homophobic jokes. ("What's the difference between a microwave and a gay guy? A microwave won't brown your meat!") Wicker also tells Brad, "If you could only get pregnant, I'd have you barefoot and in my kitchen in no time!" Then again, impressed by Brad's military record, Wicker says, "Any fag that wants to kill a bunch a Japs is OK by me." In addition to those seemingly endless dance sequences, there's a lengthy scene when Brad, Linda, and Connie play a game called "Faces," where they challenge each other to create an appropriate expression for, say, "anguish, with an undertone of sexiness." And there are at least two instances of that Three's Company specialty, the overheard and misconstrued conversation; in one, Linda listens in on Connie and Terry in the bedroom, snorting cocaine ("How can I feel good when I have white stuff coming out my nostrils?"), concluding that they have invented a form of sex that involves penetration through the nose.
It would seem impossible to come up with anything more inane than a typical episode of Three's Company, but Adjmi has done it, in spades. It would be apparent to even the dullest child that any episode of the series is a thing of its time, filled with assumptions that have long passed their sell-by date, but the author goes about his business with a sledgehammer; it might work if he was capable of preserving the show's farcical (and sometimes funny) surface, letting the underlying assumptions reveal themselves. Instead, his method is frankly punitive -- and the audience doesn't escape his wrath, as scene after scene of degradation is staged, repetitively and to little effect. I have no reliable statistics, but I feel sure that 3C sets the world record for use of the word "faggot" in 90 minutes. And, because 3C is rarely, if ever, funny, there is no contrast with its darker passages. It ultimately comes across as a massive act of condescension; it never seems to occur to Adjmi that a show as silly as Three's Company, as backward as it may now look, might actually have been a small step forward at the time. At least it mentioned homosexuality in a semi-benign context.
In any case, you have to admire the commitment with which Jackson Gay has staged this hodgepodge, aided by a cast capable of shifting tones and styles with hairpin accuracy and skill. Hannah Cabell captures Linda's self-hating qualities, Anna Chlumsky spits out Connie's inane lines with the skill of a screwball comedy heroine, and Jake Silbermann effectively signals the terrible pain lurking under Brad's exterior. Eddie Cahill makes Terry into an echt-'70s sexual operator; especially in his electric-blue jumpsuit -- the knockout costumes are by Oana Botez-Ban -- every time he enters, you can practically hear the Bee Gees in the background. As Mr. Wicker, Bill Buell is asked to do any number of disgusting things, and he does them all with brio. Kate Buddeke effectively channels the spirit of Audra Lindley as Mrs. Wicker.
In addition to the period-perfect costumes -- Love the red halter top! The sparkly platform shoes! --John McDermott's set is a fair copy of Three's Company's signature living room and Tyler Micoleau's lighting effective apes the hard, bright look of '70s sitcoms. Matt Tierney's sound design includes a number of tasty excerpts from one of Giorgio Moroder's albums.
Everything about 3C is well done. The question is, Why is it being done at all? More than anything, 3C comes off as an exercise in misdirected rage. Adjmi is a fine writer -- his drama, Stunning, was one of the most distinctive plays of its season -- who here seems to be wasting his prodigious talents. Next time he should find a bigger, more deserving target; the result might not be an exercise in the blindingly obvious.--David Barbour