Gray Punks on Dope

During my pre-matinee nap last Sunday afternoon, my Jewish playwright friend left me a voice mail message: "Hey, I'm in town, let's get together for lunch. But don't try to drag me to the theater, I saw The California Kid yesterday and I'm still recovering. What a bag of crap that was."

I considered myself forewarned by someone who ought to know, but nothing could have prepared me for Arizona Jewish Theatre Company's latest offering. Martin Blank's comedy, about a couple of old people who become drug dealers, skips the highs and heads directly for the next-morning hangover. Its two relentlessly unfunny acts plod drearily, thanks to inept direction and despite the best efforts of a mostly talented cast. My only amusement came from counting the number of snoring septuagenarians in the audience.

This production marks the show's world première and, if good taste and common sense prevail, it will be the last. The story, when it occasionally appears, is about an old woman and her boyfriend whose various ailments keep them in constant pain. He smokes dope for his glaucoma; she's addicted to Valium. When her physician refuses to renew her prescription for painkillers, her grandson offers the couple a hit of Ecstasy. Soon, the seniors are hawking the stuff to their oldster pals, and using the money to pay off an evil landlord who's raised the rent on his ancient tenants.

Blank's script provides neither funny laugh lines nor amusing situations. His characters' cheerless shenanigans had me hoping they'd all get busted and pitched into the pokey before the second act, but alas, they remained, treating us to impersonations of Groucho Marx and Richard Nixon, and crawling through scenes that end with lines like, "I have a bad feeling about this!" meant to forewarn us that something lousy is about to happen.

Actually, the entire exercise is something lousy about to happen. We're supposed to be tickled by the sight of old people smoking marijuana from a bong, and to believe that anyone who gets stoned begins bellowing '60s hipster nonsense. Almost immediately after ingesting drugs, the old guy's speech is peppered with words like "man" and "dude"; he talks about meeting Hendrix at Woodstock and bellows, "Peace, love, rock on!" Later, he dances (badly, thanks to choreography by Noel Irick, who, because she is married to the director, creates creaky dances for every one of his shows) to not one but three cheesy rock songs from the Summer of Love.

(This horrid and very long scene inspired the first animated response of the afternoon from the largely white-haired audience who, after sitting quietly for 45 minutes without so much as a titter, squirmed in their seats and gasped in disbelief. I imagined that they were longing for their own pain meds to relieve the headache this show induced.)

There are some vague messages here about art versus commerce and discrimination against senior citizens, but it's hard to find any real point to Blank's story. He doesn't appear to want us to feel sorry for old people, since the ones he's written are so unlikable. And there's no real moral about taking or selling drugs, both of which provide most of the meager punch lines here. The California Kid might serve as a deterrent to one's grandmother who's thinking about dropping acid, or as a means of dissuading youngsters from becoming theater arts majors. But it's not much fun to look at.

The show is directed by Peter Hill, who should never be allowed to direct anything ever again. Hill is either completely talentless or has a vendetta against theater itself: Everything he touches turns to dreck. With Hill's coaching, every scene smolders. Dramatic scenes are filled with smiles and curtsies, and the only tension comes from the audience, which is coiled to spring for the doors the minute the curtain falls. I know I did.

The California Kid stopped snorting and braying after a while, but not before a sticky-sweet ending that made what came before all the more annoying. The villain is transformed into a sweet-natured benefactor; the struggling thespian grandson gets an acting job and marries his drug-dealer girlfriend, who gets pregnant and becomes an anti-drug counselor. Everyone is blissed out, but certainly not from unwholesome narcotics. The whole mess reeks.

But don't take my word for it. Consider these audience comments, which I overheard at intermission and hastily scribbled into my notebook: "Let's stay for the second half. It can't get any worse."

"We paid good money for these tickets, we're gonna go back in there and just see it through to the end."

And my personal favorite: "Oysh, what a corker!"

I was hoping the last show I saw this century would be something pleasant, but I found myself instead in the presence of a stinkbomb. Perhaps in the next century an ordinance will be passed barring bad theater from taking the stage. In the meantime, feh! and double feh! to Martin Blank and Arizona Jewish Theatre Company for troubling us with such an unpleasant attempt at entertainment.

Arizona Jewish Theatre Company's production of The California Kid continues through Sunday, January 9, at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe.


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