part of the
New York International Fringe Festival
Theater of the Arcade
Long before video games had any pretense of being art (and thus arousing Roger Ebert’s ire), they were content as addictive entertainment. So the tiniest crumb of the concept behind Jeff Lewonczyk’s play Theater of the Arcade, currently playing at the Bleecker Theatre as part of the New York International Fringe Festival, is enough to get any child of the 1980s giggling: adaptations of five “Golden Age” games for the stage. The funny bone tingles as you imagine the wonders that could emerge from dramatic and characterological dissections of the nonsensical “plots” that nonetheless made for absorbing hours of pixel-pushing enjoyment. Yet, against the odds, the show itself is considerably less than hilarious.
Lewonczyk hasn’t so much adapted the games as he has crammed them into pre-existing stereotypical forms. The idea of a playwright investigating what makes Pac-Man and his ghost predators tick, for example, is brilliant; doing it as a Threepenny Opera knock-off, however, is not, because the cheap laughs that result have less to do with the original game than they do the audience’s familiarity with the Brecht-Weill form. Similar problems affect the Frogger-as-Beckett and Asteroids-as-Mamet scenes: They’re more about smugly mimicking well-known writers than they are tweaking the games’ inherent absurdities. All of these playwrights have been parodied before, and better, elsewhere, which makes Lewonczyk’s squandering his fresh concept that much more deflating.
Unsurprisingly, the two chapters that work best are the ones that tell the best stories. The Mario Brothers bickering endlessly about their competing for status and their interlocking love lives is clever without being pompous, and its humor doesn’t rely exclusively on the theatrical source of its parody — Sam Shepard magical realism — the way practically every other playlet does. And rendering the tale of Donkey Kong as a Tennessee Williams Southern saga is stretching things, but the brutish guy who takes out economic frustrations on everyone from his boss to his girlfriend Pauline to the annoying Italian landlord downstairs by throwing things (especially barrels) ties human to electronic action, which is definitely a plus.
Both Gyda Arber’s direction and the performances are as uneven as the writing; only Josh Mertz (playing, ironically, DK as well as Mario) finds the most appropriate midpoint between seriousness and silliness; everyone else tends to be too dark, going for Tragedy-with-a-Capital-T rather than Fun-with-a-Capital-F. In watching a show like this, you shouldn’t feel as though you’re seeing the GAME OVER message before you’ve popped in a single quarter, but that’s the ultimate result of Lewonczyk’s haphazard smushing of forms. Theater of the Arcade’s title may identify Lewonczyk’s goal with this two-hour evening. But in defaulting to other writers’ instincts rather than his own, Arcade of the Theater is what he’s uneasily and unsatisfyingly attained.
Theater of the Arcade
If you think you’ll go insane if you ever hear another musical “mash-up,” or are forced to endure cheesily modernized versions of classic songs you once thought you loved, then seeing the systematic murders of every member of a hyperactive and copyright-defying high school choir by way of a Fringe show could be this summer’s guiltiest of pleasures. Gleeam, which comes to New York by way of the Washington, D.C.–based Landless Theatre Company, delivers that, mashing up Ryan Murphy’s TV show Glee with the Scream film series to result in a generally effective, if largely bloodless, skewering of both franchises’ addictions to archetypes and violent defiance of common sense.
The trouble with Andrew Lloyd Baughman’s show, which is dotted with songs by Phil Close and vocal arrangements by musical director Charles W. Johnson, is that it never progresses far beyond its premise. Once the school’s Drama Queen is exsanguinated mid-belt in the opening number, her classmates fret a bit but otherwise continue with their lives as “normal.” Her boyfriend, Sensitive Jock, takes up with Pregnant Slut, who’s trying to make Tough Jock jealous — all while Gay Kid analyzes the rules of horror movies in an attempt to unmask the killer before the group loses another mezzo. You get the idea. Neither story is given more than a cursory exploration, which prevents most of what happens from being fall-down funny. A lot of it is eyebrow-raised quotation, the kids recognizing the tropes around them, which inspires smirks rather than lasting humor the way more incisive and insightful parody would.
Baughman’s writing and Emily Ann Jablonski’s staging are at their most delicious when everyone worries least about boundaries and just has a good time. Among the best examples: showing that Teacher (Chase Maggiano, in an eerily accurate Matthew Morrison impersonation) really does have the model-quality abs everyone claims in his stripping duet with Celebrity Guest Star; letting background-occupying Black Girl (Justine Hall, the one real musical standout) take center stage to blast out the energetic and gospel-tinged “Black Don’t Crack” about her intent to stay alive at any cost; and structuring the finale as an opportunity for every decapitated stereotype to replace itself with a new one that’s somehow equally obnoxious and ubiquitous.
These aren’t types of humor that either Glee or Scream have readily employed. But despite being (relatively) new, they’re devastating comments and responses to what those titles do and do not allow, and thus lets Gleeam attack at the same time it innovates. This proves conclusively that, although mash-ups can work, nothing quite compares to real, creative thought.