Theatre in Review: The Last Smoker in America (Westside Theatre)
Nicotine addicts who, in the depths of winter, huddle outside Manhattan bars, desperate to get a fix, might get a laugh or two out of The Last Smoker in America. After all, they truly, deeply understand the meaning of desperation. Everyone else may want to take a pass on this hot-weather silly season offering, which amounts to a collection of gimmicks in search of a musical.
The Last Smoker in America is set in the near future, when all smoking has been outlawed; Bill Russell's libretto focuses on the effects of this law on one family. Ernie, a would-be rocker who doesn't realize that middle age came knocking long ago, has managed, with difficulty, to kick the habit, but his wife, Pam, a college English instructor, is a holdout, hoarding her last few cigarettes in a cookie jar. Also on hand are Phyllis, the neighborhood anti-nicotine enforcer, and Jimmy, the son of Ernie and Pam, who suffers from a powerful identity crisis; one minute, he's pretending to be gangsta rapper, the next, he's running around in his mother's high heels.
If there was a plot, I would have described it in this paragraph, but, really, there isn't any. In fact, one of the salient features of The Last Smoker in America is the inability of its creators to stay on topic. Time and again, the show stops cold to spoof such unrelated issues as the Osmond family, rock anthems, white boy rappers, and -- of all things -- Riverdance. The fact that most of these subjects are two decades old or more suggests that The Last Smoker in America has been in development a long, long time. The most up-to-date reference occurs when one of the characters appears outfitted as a suicide bomber; you can imagine the fun they have with that.
Then again, The Last Smoker in America might have worked better if the authors were able to focus their satire a little more; after all, in the summer of Mayor Bloomberg's proposed ban on big servings of soda, the issue of government control over personal habits couldn't be more topical. But Russell tends to conflate nanny-state legalisms with the political overreaching of the religious right -- Phyllis is a born-again Christian who sings the lyric "Jesus is my dope" -- creating a satirical target that is entirely divorced from reality. (Actually, conservative Christians are often the biggest defenders of personal liberty in most matters; they only want to control sexual behaviors.)
But this is giving too much credit to a show that never met a stupid, low-down gag it didn't like. Ernie, complaining that Pam's nicotine habit is ruining their sex life, cracks, "I don't want to spend another night on top of Old Smokey." When Ernie decides to commit adultery with Phyllis, he lays her on the kitchen counter, spreads her legs, and sprays her crotch with aerosol. His head disappears behind the counter, and, when he resurfaces, he is wearing snorkel gear. There's an entire number detailing alternatives to using "the C word," which allows Russell to write a lyric cataloguing practically every offensive epithet ever known to man. As is the case with all the songs, Peter Melnick's music is unfailingly peppy, if not particularly memorable.
In truth, there's not enough material here for a ten-minute sketch, and, even at a relatively brief 90 minutes, The Last Smoker in America seems to go on forever. Andy Sandberg's direction is fast-moving, but extremely indulgent, encouraging the skilled cast to mug ferociously. Farah Alvin has the makings of a true musical comedy clown, but, as Pam, she is defeated by her one-note role. As Ernie, John Bolton throws himself into his big number, "Straight White Man," with all the fervor of a would-be Jagger, delivering the vulgar, unfunny lyrics as if gifted with a socko comic turn. The role of Jimmy is nothing but a shifting collection of attitudes, but Jake Boyd embraces each of them with the skill of a true quick-sketch artist. The standout work comes from Natalie Venetia Belcon, whose Phyllis is a smiling, sunny proto-fascist, her voice occasionally dropping several octaves when her true intentions slip out. She also takes a less than so-so number, "Let the Lord Be Your Addiction," and makes something of it, thanks to her superior clowning skills and ability to hold a note to Merman-esque lengths.
The show also has an unusually slick production design. Charlie Corcoran's ample, shiny kitchen set is filled with sliding panels hiding a number of visual surprises; it also transforms easily into several other locations, including the smoky bar where Ernie and Pam met. (Corcoran gets bonus points for his rendering of the Asphyxia, a gizmo on the wall that provides updates on the new smoking laws and goes into full Defcon mode anytime someone lights up.) The lighting, by Jeff Croiter and Grant Yeager, amusingly underlines the characters' freak-out moments with bursts of saturated color and swirling patterns. Michael McDonald provides an amazingly large parade of costumes for what is, after all, a four-character show; these range from Vegas-style jumpsuits to Pam's camouflage, when she becomes a kind of Che Guevera to the Marlboro set. Bart Fasbender's sound design provides an ideal balance of voices and music, and also includes an array of effects, including thunder and police sirens.
As always happens with shows like this, defenders will insist that The Last Smoker in America only means to give audiences an uncomplicated good time. Fair enough, but even light entertainment needs wit, consistency, and a point of view. All three of these qualities are strikingly absent. Don't expect to become addicted to this one.--David Barbour