A production that defies every sort of convention and lives to tell the tale is a very rare thing. Perhaps even rarer are those, such as this, that slavishly conform and limply flounder.
Loosely adapted from the recent experiences of TV personality Katie Couric, “perk/pussy/pathos” is the story of a morning news anchor Jennifer Huckabee (Erica Sullivan DRA ’09) who, to the alternating delight and chagrin of her network’s executives, flip-flops between grief and rebellion after her husband’s death. Although it’s pretentious enough to include two slashes in its title, “perk/pussy/pathos” pretends nothing. The production is not satisfied in being empty; it seems to flaunt its emptiness like Monty Python or the Russian absurdists did. Only the latter were funny.
And yet there are moments when this production seems to assert, if timidly, psychological depth. Sullivan’s character, though often less compelling than the play’s uninspired premise, occasionally shows signs of real human thought or feeling. Her initial emotional crises, for example, are even compelling. But, as the result of apparent authorial fatigue, they ultimately reveal no connection to the rest of the plot.
Incoherence is a characteristic and chronic disease of this production. The audience is as quickly lost in the meaningless mumbles of the simplistic plot as it would have been in the tangles of a Futurist opera. Nothing is clarified in this play; we never have the foggiest idea where any characters stand with themselves and others. Relationships are almost non-existent, thin strands of artificial interaction that create a false sense of continuity among personalities. Individual characters, especially Huckabee, are so broken and underdeveloped that they are reincarnated in every scene, lacking any distinct sense of identity with their earlier selves.
Most of the show’s last scenes seem to be the unfortunate result of uncured writers’ block. Playwright Kevin Martigue evidently had a mundane premise, a few good ideas and an early deadline. His show begins with some strong moments: the second scene, for example, in which Huckabee has an existential crisis in the bathtub, or that in which Huckabee’s CEO snorts several lines of cocaine during a bug-eyed tirade. But those tolerable first moments, which at the very least promise authorial competence, are lost in the rambling mediocrity of the remainder of the plot, which draws heavily from the limitless bank of contemporary comedic inanity. In Miranda (Caitlin Clouthier DRA ’08), “perk” resurrects the mortally beaten emo-kid character type. The black-wearing, Neitzsche-reading character seems to be stolen, iPod and all, from a pre-teen television series, and it is only worsened by Clouthier’s lifeless yet exaggerated portrayal.
True, the show does not simply end at its beginning. Martigue should be given credit for a nugget or two of comedic proficiency, such as a poem recited in an underground cafe by a disgruntled elementary school teacher. But Martigue, whose play is, at best, a loose association of such nuggets, is clearly clumsy when it comes to the shaping of a theatrical whole.
Like a dying animal, “perk” stumbles with painful tenacity until it collapses in a shuddering, huddled mass of a finale. The denouement is Shakespearean in death toll but in little else.
In short, “perk” is as thought-provoking and artistic as “The Today Show” whence it sprung. It is a half-hearted attempt to take the crust of comedic residue clinging to the corners of the public mind and remold it into something watchable.
Correction Nov. 5 2011: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of playwright Kevin Martigue.