Format dooms content in 'Life Goes Boom!'

March 30, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

Pop culture is the lens through which Baltimore playwright Alonzo D. Lamont Jr. examines society in his new play, "Life Go Boom!", which is receiving its premiere as the inaugural production of the Playwrights Theatre of Baltimore.

This sleek, 125-seat facility, located in a former laundry, warehouse and rowhouse -- and dedicated to producing debuts -- has made its own debut with a work by a veteran playwright. A professor and playwright-in-residence at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, Lamont is also an old hand at exploring pop culture.

"Vivisections from the Blown Mind," a 1991 commission by Washington's Arena Stage, was about a rap star. "That Serious He-Man Ball," produced off-Broadway in 1987, was about sports. In "Life Go Boom!," Lamont turns to television talk shows.

In one sense, talk shows are a natural for the theater, and their innate theatricality is demonstrated by treating the audience like a studio audience at a live TV show. At the same time, director A. Lorraine Robinson needs to take a hint from TV and speed up the pace.

In another sense, talk shows are unnatural stage material. By definition, they are forums for preaching, and despite the inclusion of physical action, "Life Goes Boom!" falls into the speechifying trap.

The guests on "The Jasper Imhotep Show" are Dr. Ashanti Barnes, a proponent of Afrocentric education, and RayRay DuRoy, a white ex-con who joined a black street gang after his release and turned it into a rap group specializing in "rap polka."

Jasper has Dr. Barnes and RayRay on his show because they are suing and countersuing each other on the grounds of "sex-cult discrimination." What this means doesn't really matter. What matters is that it sounds like the stuff of some of the more outrageous TV talk shows.

But even in this context, a number of points don't make sense. For instance, Dr. Barnes is incensed when Jasper quotes titillating passages from the doctor's autobiography, but she's the one who turned her personal history into public knowledge by writing the book.

Dr. Barnes, RayRay and Jasper debate the difference between style and substance, the principles of betterment, the nature of responsibility, etc. But mostly, they are intent on exploiting each other for self-aggrandizement. RayRay wants the lawsuit to promote his rap group; Dr. Barnes, who has been nominated for a government post, wants to clear her name by discrediting RayRay; and Jasper, who has discovered a secret about these two, wants to boost ratings.

Maria Broom's Dr. Barnes starts out with plenty of pride and backbone, making the subsequent revelation of her hypocrisy all the more effective. And though Lance Irwin's RayRay doesn't convey enough tension to be convincing as either a former criminal or a current bad boy of the music world, he brings credibility to his connection with Barnes.

As a talk show host, Regi Davis is slick, and he does his best with the play's most interesting twist. But this is also the play's deepest descent into didacticism, and it's not surprising that the actor -- not just the character he plays -- seems to squirm under the weight of such overt sermonizing.

In the end, however, it isn't didacticism, pacing or logic that robs "Life Go Boom!" of its thunder. It's the talk show subject itself. A medium that has been known to sacrifice almost anything for ratings -- as Michael Ollove and David Zurawik reported in last Sunday's Sun -- talk shows can be their own most biting commentary; a play can barely compete.

THEATER REVIEW

Life Go Boom!"

Where: Playwrights Theatre of Baltimore, 912 Washington Blvd.

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Through April 24

Tickets: $10-$14

Call: (410) 727-1847

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