The Good Times Are Killing Me was a surprise off-Broadway hit a few years back, and the autobiographical play by syndicated cartoonist Lynda Barry--first a novel--tries to capture the mid-1960s Great Society frame of mind, when blacks were moving into aging, middle-class, white neighborhoods. Barry's voice is that of Edna, a preteen girl, whose white family doesn't quite know what to do about racial discrimination, mounting racial violence and the fact that Edna's best friend, Bonna, is black.
The show, being performed by Phoenix Little Theatre, is a series of episodes, linked by Edna's narration. She addresses the audience as a girl writing in a diary, describing situations and emotions that are touching and funny because of their forthrightness. Her voice is authentic, the most original part of The Good Times Are Killing Me.
The play can't make up its mind, though, whether it's a light satire, a serious social commentary or a string of comedy skits. Some of the scenes could come straight from a standup routine: Having never received their merit badges, the two girls confront their bizarre Girl Scout leader, whose most astonishing characteristic (among many peculiar ones) is a pair of giant buttocks. The bit was funny, but had nothing to do with the rest of the play.
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A more successful scene had the white family going camping, and after some agonized soul-searching, inviting Bonna along. In that naive, 1960s way, Aunt Margaret makes sure Bonna feels included--during the campfire sing-along, she points out how lucky American songwriter Stephen Foster was to be able to draw on Negro influences for "Massa's in de Cold Cold Ground." Everything in The Good Times Are Killing Me is done to the accompaniment of one 60s song or another, and after a certain point, the technique seems manipulative. How many times are we expected to laugh at the opening strains of "Volare"? The best musical moment came near the beginning, when Edna whirls around the stage to Julie Andrews' "The Sound of Music." However sentimental the musical seems now, there was a time when girls like Edna wanted nothing more than to grow up to be a heroine like Maria, and the play expresses that innocence well.
Unfortunately, the rest of the characters were far less defined. Much is made of Edna's father having an extramarital affair that eventually breaks up the family, but he is never portrayed as anything more than a buffoon. The black family next door suffers from an unstable mother and the tragedy of a child's drowning, but none of the characters had enough time onstage to define themselves. By the end, even Bonna seems one-dimensional--we never learn how she feels about moving into a neighborhood with whites, or seeing demonstrations and riots.
The Good Times Are Killing Me does have some good acting. Tiffany Westlie as Edna was about as far from a typical TV sitcom kid as you can get. She carried the show from beginning to end, speaking the author's words as if they were her own; the part has got to be one of the best for that age actor since Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Brooklyn Davis as her younger sister hammed it up just enough to be funny without milking laughs. And Iris Huey as Bonna--although appearing older than her co-star--had the tougher acting job. The part didn't offer the opportunity to explain the character through dialogue, but relied on body language and attitude.
The ending tried to tack on a confrontation to a play that until then had been a loose satire, and dramatically it didn't make sense. In one scene, Bonna defends her relationship with Edna when they walk through a black neighborhood and she is called "Oreo" and "Uncle Tom." Once the girls enter seventh grade, however, they segregate themselves by race and end up in a fight. The tragedy is that they never acknowledge at school that they had been neighbors and best friends. Edna's narration vaguely refers to social pressure as the cause of the fight, but character-wise, it's a cop-out with no explanation at all. The Good Times Are Killing Me has a lot of fun with racial attitudes at the expense of the white middle class, but it promises more than it delivers.