Wellman play satirizes arts controversy

October 05, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

Ah, the irony, the irony.

The play at AXIS Theatre has a title unprintable in a family newspaper. The New York Times called it "a play by Mac Wellman" when it was produced off-Broadway, so this critic is going to call it "a play the New York Times called a play by Mac Wellman."

The title is unprintable because it includes a slang term for a sex act. The irony of its unprintability is that the play itself is about knee-jerk reactions to sexually explicit art.

Wellman wrote it as a satire of the controversy sparked by right-wing reaction to the exhibition of photographs by the late Robert Mapplethorpe, a controversy in which conservative North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms figured prominently.

How trenchant a satire is it? Well, compared to the amusing dilemma arising from the title, it's pretty tame. In fact, the cover of the AXIS program, in which the word "censored" is stamped over the title, is more clever than much of the play.

In four short scenes, Wellman poses the following situation: An envelope containing seven photographs arrives via express mail the office of a conservative Southern senator called merely Senator Bob. The subject matter of the photos proves so shocking to the senator's secretary that she faints after peeking into the envelope.

Two of Senator Bob's aides make a more exhaustive study of the pictures and find themselves becoming aroused, or as they more modestly put it, "wiggly." As for Senator Bob, well, he may not know what he's looking at, but he knows what he doesn't like. To make absolutely certain, however, he seeks the opinion of an upstanding televangelical preacher (who happens to have a wandering eye).

Together this crew quibbles over whether the photos represent perversion or subversion. Ultimately, they come up with a politically expedient solution to their problems.

Director Brian Klaas has staged the action broadly, with jazzy carnival-sounding music between scenes and characterizations that are intentionally more like caricatures. The most comical of these is Darlene Deardorff's portrayal of Senator Bob's automaton of a secretary, who turns out to be the brightest member of his staff. Roger Buchanan's senator and Peter R. Wilkes' preacher are also humorously cartoon-like, as are Jennifer Brown and Dana Whipkey as the senator's aides.

In the end, though, "a play the New York Times called a play by Mac Wellman" is more of a skit than a full-fledged satirical drama. And, as much as I admire AXIS for having the guts to produce this play, I have to conclude that the controversial issues the play is about are more dramatic than the play itself.

MAC WELLMAN PLAY

Where: AXIS Theatre, 3600 Clipper Mill Road

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 30

Tickets: $11 and $13

Call: (410) 243-5237

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