Frank Higgins' The Taste Test is a smartly written, talky play about power struggle and betrayal. Its snappy dialogue and brittle undertones require a strong cast and tight direction to sell finer points and to keep the story moving. Unfortunately, the Black Theatre Troupe production does not offer these amenities.
Set in 1985, the play recounts the real-life sales wars between Coca Cola and Pepsi that resulted in the disastrous introduction of New Coke in 1985. It appears that Higgins was unable to secure the right to use Coke's name in his fictitious behind-the-scenes story, and so the two colas in question here are Pepsi and King Cola, a name chosen perhaps for its ironic quality, as this is a story of three women making their way in high-power corporate America.
For those of us who don't recall the specifics of the cola wars, Higgins — who rather distastefully likens them to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in their cultural significance — reminds us that in the early '80s, Pepsi's new marketing campaigns led to increased sales by the number two cola. Fearing for its top spot, Coke launched Diet Coke, an instant success, followed by New Coke, which just as quickly became a marketing and sales disaster.
But The Taste Test is no more about Coke than Mommie Dearest (the film about Pepsi board member Joan Crawford's alleged abuse of her children) is about Coke's closest competitor. In Higgins' story, a trio of women is in charge of both the soft drink's climb and its decline, and his points gently nudge at references to corporate America's glass ceiling and kick the heck out of how women sometimes treat one another.
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As brought together by director Anthony Runfola, Higgins' women appear never to have met, even while they're sharing scenes together. One gets the impression that, given some real direction, Racquel McKenzie might have made something of Jewel, who's at the center of the story as the marketing agency exec who's been paid to put spin on New Coke. But McKenzie's strong presence and glimmers of warmth are derailed by Michelle Nakamoto's largely lifeless reading of Mary, Jewel's college friend who's now a nervous Coke big wig, and by the nervous ramblings of Shari Watts, whose Clair is written as an uptight and powerful CEO but played by Watts as a flummoxed flibbertigibbet.
Mario Garcia's costume designs are period-correct, all mid-'80s jewel tones and exaggerated shoulder pads. But Nakamoto's costumes hang on her; each appears to be a full size too big, as do the shockingly wiggy wigs worn by the entire cast, also courtesy of Garcia.
Higgins' multi-layered character study is lost in this local production, its honesty plundered by false performances, its finer points about friendship buried by ironically ill-designed staging. Pepsi-era Joan Crawford would have been delighted.
The Taste Test continues through Sunday, October 25, at the Helen K. Mason Center for the Performing Arts, 1333 E. Washington St. Call 602-258-8129 or visit www.blacktheatretroupe.org.