Popcorn, adapted by Ben Elton from his own novel, is a weird-ass, risky, wild ride of a show, at once an absurd farce about Hollywood and a meditation on the hot-button issue of violence in the media. The HotHouse Theatre Company's excellent production strengthens its position on the cutting edge of St. Louis theater.
Popcorn won the 1998 Olivier Award for Best New Comedy and gives us a good idea of how the British view us sex-and-violence obsessed Americans. It's set in the Beverly Hills home of film director Bruce Delamitri (Chopper Leifheit), a sort of Oliver Stone/Richard Donner blend but with more artistic pretensions. On the morning after his Oscar win (for his film Ordinary Americans, which includes 57 murders), his house is invaded by his worst nightmare: Wayne and Scout (B. Weller and Larissa Forsythe), known as the Mall Murderers, who blame Delamitri's films for their nationwide crime spree. They hold the director and his Oscar-night date (Merryl Crivelli) at gunpoint, kill his producer (John O'Hearn), hold his ex-wife (Liz Guthrie) and daughter (Jessica Bedwinik) hostage and finally try to negotiate a deal: They will all be spared if Delamitri accepts the blame for their murders. It's hilarious, tasteless, weird and provocative, sometimes in turn and sometimes all at once. It doesn't pretend to answer any questions but asks tons of them -- about social and personal responsibility, the roles of the artist and media in society and the voyeuristic nature of us all.
For both the comedy and the message to work, we have to accept this absurd world, and director William Grivna, costumer Corey Weiser and scenic designer Scott DeBroux wisely establish a reality from which the absurdity can spring. Grivna's cast navigates the tricky changes of tone in the play, veering back and forth between extremely black comedy and frightening realism with only a few bumps in the road. A good director takes advantage of his actors' strengths, of course, but Grivna also excels at turning their limitations to the play's advantage. As a result, although Weller and Forsythe stand out as the media-savvy killers, individuals of varying skills all shine in the ensemble, rounded out by Laura Lodewyck and Aaron Allen.
The themes of artistic intention and culpability climax in an on-the-air debate between Delamitri and Wayne. The play teeters on the edge of didacticism at this point, but a final plot twist pulls it from the brink. Elton doesn't let anyone off the hook: the murderers, the filmmakers and especially the public, who seem incapable of turning away from a car wreck or of finding the "off " switch on their televisions.