In November the new HotCity Theatre auspiciously debuted with a nigh-flawless rendering of The Exonerated. Now HotCity is unveiling its second stage, the Greenhouse. But whereas The Exonerated was an explosive bombshell of a production, this debut offering of Lee Blessing's Chesapeake is a dud.
It's hard to know which is more culpable, the play or the production. Let's start with the play. Chesapeake is a long, loony one-man show that enjoys lobbing pot shots at the ongoing schism between art and bureaucracy. Our narrator is a crazy performance artist named Kerr -- pronounced cur, as in mutt. Kerr spends much of the evening chronicling his downfall (and his plans for outrageous revenge) after he becomes a political football in the senatorial campaign of a cur-loving U.S. Congressman from Virginia. The title refers to the politician's Chesapeake Labrador retriever.
Three years ago in this same playing space (St. John's United Methodist Church, on Washington Place at Kingshighway), City Players staged a much-praised version of Blessing's drama Cobb, about baseball legend Ty Cobb. But Chesapeake reaffirms an alternate view of Blessing as a writer with too little to say who takes too long to say it. Apparently there is humor here; many in the opening-night audience laughed heartily throughout the evening. But there's not much depth; Congressmen -- especially Southern Congressmen -- are always easy targets for liberal writers. Nor, despite the wacky trail that Blessing's shaggy-dog story travels, is there as much originality as you might at first think. His play bears more than a passing similarity to A.R. Gurney's Sylvia, which debuted in 1996, three years ahead of Chesapeake.
Which raises another cavil. The Greenhouse keeps extolling the fact that Chesapeake is a St. Louis premiere. But there are gradations of premieres. Next season, when the Rep produces local premieres of Take Me Out and I Am My Own Wife, audiences will have access to topical, prize-winning theater fare. But the St. Louis premiere of a six-year-old play is hardly an event of note; on the contrary, it makes one wonder why local theater groups have avoided this script until now.
Champions of Chesapeake have likened it to a Mixmaster blend of Kafka and cartoons. You won't find anything that oddball in this straight-laced mounting. Director Jason Cannon cannot be exonerated for having staged a production that substitutes charm for danger. By evening's end, Blessing's script about a performance artist is supposed to morph into performance art. That doesn't occur here; instead, we get narrative heaped upon more narrative.
Cannon's first mistake was to miscast the appealing Jerry Vogel as Kerr. His second mistake was to not help the actor create a subversively eccentric character. Vogel delivers a smooth-as-silk reading. But if from the outset Kerr is merely a nice guy seeking puppy love from the audience, then where is the risk for the actor? Where is the bravery? Where is Kerr, that maddening, off-the-wall, bisexual performance artist who is supposed to lead the audience on a roller-coaster ride through a dozen different emotions? We get one: congenial.
Does anyone remember Ted Gregory's rollicking turn as the bizarre Otto three years ago in the City Players production of Nicky Silver's The Food Chain? Gregory's performance was truer to the underlying demonic spirit of Kerr than anything on display here.
So there it is: a straight-and-narrow staging of an overwritten play. Ultimately, there is nothing about this HotCity production to suggest that it's been produced by the same organization that triumphed with The Exonerated. The folks at the Greenhouse may be bubbling with enthusiasm. But enthusiasm alone doesn't necessarily equate to quality.