Time Traveling at City Theatre

Does the 2012 presidential election 24-hour news cycle have you wishing for a simpler time? City Theatre is currently offering two choices for blasting back to the past. Through October 28, Seth Rudetsky has returned to Pittsburgh, this time to present Seth's Big Fat '70s Show, a comedic look at yet another of Seth's obsessions: "The Brady Bunch Variety Hour." And a production of Maple and Vine, running through November 4, shows a husband and wife escaping the stresses and pressures of the 21st century, as they enter a different time completely

In Seth's Big Fat '70s Show, Seth Rudetsky offers a seminar on the laughable parts of of a short-lived, wrong-headed TV variety show featuring one of 1960s TV's favorite sitcom families, the Bradys. Of course, the laughable parts are pretty much all of the parts of this 8-episode, Sid and Marty Krofft-produced, 1976-1977 mini-series (episodes appeared in rep, kind of, with "The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries"). With machine-gun delivery, a full supply of videos, and a laser pointer, Seth introduces us to the unintentionally funny aspects of "The Brady Bunch Variety Hour." From the big picture ("patient zero"—when this show branched off of an appearance on the "Donny & Marie" variety show) to the minute detail (a chorus girl kicking one too many times, an actor caught on camera trying to sneak across the stage behind the performing bunch) and everything in between (bad singing, bad dancing, inappropriate song stylings, "what were they thinking" staging—including the contribution of "swancers," swimming dancers in an onstage pool), we see exactly what happened when TV variety shows stopped being comprised of "talented people doing what they do well" and went bad.

Partly because of Seth's enthusiasm and pinpoint accuracy in pointing out the absurd, and partly because it really was laughably bad, this is a really, really funny show. Even if you didn't see the series (maybe you were in college, in a campus-imposed TV blackout like me), viewing it in this way increases the hilarity. It may help if you actually lived through the 1970s, many aspects of which look ridiculous from our current viewpoint, but even those too young to have first-hand knowledge will enjoy it. I will not reveal the concluding example of the Most Inappropriate Song presented on TV, but it lives up to the title.

This type of "deconstructed" show (detail-oriented viewings based on his own fanatical examinations) is Seth's speciality, and this one will hopefully show up in other cities.

Nelson Lee, Caralyn Kozlowski, Robin Abramson and Greg McFadden
Meanwhile, on the mainstage, the City is featuring a more serious look at the past. In Jordan Harrison's play Maple and Vine, Katha (Robin Abramson) and Ryu (Nelson Lee) find a different type of relief from the stressful pace of modern-day lives—they move to 1955. This is not presented as a fantasy; they are not time traveling. Katha meets Dean (Greg McFadden), who tells her about a settlement of "re-enactors" who have re-created, and live in 1955 United States. As Katha has been so troubled by her job and by a recent personal loss, she has been unable to sleep, and the world of 1955 sounds like it might just be the ticket for her and husband Ryu to get their lives back on track. While the slower pace and simpler aspects of suburban life may sound like some kind of Nirvana, the other sides to that time period—the treatment of women and other minorities, for example—present challenges.

Ryu is a plastic surgeon, and he agrees to move to Maple and Vine mostly for Katha's sake. He realizes she is not functioning well in the present day. So, he agrees fairly quickly with her suggestion of a 6-month trial move. Ryu takes a job as a cardboard box-assembler (starting at the bottom, and quickly discovering the lack of advancement offered to Asians in 1955) and seems to enjoy returning home each day to a home-cooked meal or cocktails and crab puffs with Dean and his wife Ellen (Caralyn Kozlowski). Of course, what appeared on the surface for many 1950s couples wasn't the full story, and Dean and Ellen have a big secret.

Playwright Harrison presents a very interesting scenario, and this cast does a great job presenting it, though one hurdle I had trouble getting over was figuring out why this life with its limitations would appeal to Katha and Ryu at all—there's never any hope of things improving, either, as it stays 1955, year after year. That said, the trip is interesting, and is likely to create some great post-show conversations.

Narelle Sisson has created a terrific set of literal and representation settings for both "worlds" which combine effectively with lighting by Matthew Richards and music and sound by Eric Shimelonis. Staging with "football stadium" seating—that is, two blocks of audience seating with the stage in between—is perfect for this very spectator-ly play, and Kip Fagan's directing makes it all very clear.

Seth's Big Fat '70s Show through October 28, and Maple and Vine through November 4 at the City Theater Company, 1300 Bingham Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15203 For performance and ticket information, call 412.431.CITY (2489) or visit www.citytheatrecompany.org/.

Photos: Suellen Fitzsimmons

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-- Ann Miner

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