LIKE KISSING AN ASHTRAY
The chirpy puppet-style musical is no longer a novelty but a genre; shows with lyric-dense, upbeat, simple-rhyme songs performed in rapid-fire succession are the 21st century’s light opera. The Last Smoker In America may have personalized the genre a bit by including the framework of a sitcom, but Bill Russell’s book reads as an afterthought, seemingly created to support a collection of songs about smoking. The show has an exuberant sense of fun, but after a while, the absurd premise combined with an overly silly quality would make even a non-smoker want to run outside and light up.
Performed with unstoppable energy and skill, the four-member cast knows how to sell a song in the finest of vaudeville tradition, but they’re stuck delivering an ill-conceived cautionary big brother tale. The show is set sometime in the future but with present day cultural references, such as NYC soda laws; smoking is illegal and citizens are militantly turning each other in. The family at the center of the story—Pam (Farah Alvin), Ernie (John Bolton), and son Jimmy (Jake Boyd)—are at the breaking point due to Pam’s cigarette addiction. Characters are painted with the broadest of primetime strokes: Ernie is a middle-aged out of work Rolling Stone fan who pouts and sulks his way around the house; Pam is single-mindedly focused on her one interest: cigarettes; Jimmy is a teenager of indeterminate age who rages, curses, whines, tantrums, postures, and doesn’t do what he’s told; and the intrusive and oft-visiting neighbor Phyllis (Natalie Venetia Belcon) is a proselytizing Christian with an unchecked libido.
In The Last Smoker In America, cigarettes have not been manufactured for years, yet for the first 20-25 minutes of this show, Pam agonizes over her habit. It is difficult to concentrate on a 90-minute tale of addiction to a substance that simply doesn’t exist. Perhaps we’re supposed to think of it as alcoholism; a smoker is a smoker whether they smoke or not? For the first hour I was certain there’d be a reveal of a hydroponic tobacco crop in the basement. After losing hope of that logic, I quelled the urge to stand and shout; “What are you talking about? There ARE no cigarettes!”
Ignoring that the very premise of the show is illogical, there are other quirks in the book as well: Ernie has been fired from his teaching job because he smells of his wife’s smoke, yet Pam still has her teaching job; the setting is “tomorrow” yet it isn’t clear what era it really is; Pam, a woman who seems to be in her late thirties, talks about having marched for civil rights, but even if she “marched” in a stroller, that would make her closer to fifty, no?; and there is a high-tech tobacco monitor mounted in the kitchen—think: HAL from 2001—yet Jimmy plays with what looks like an old-fashioned Atari (come to think of it, “HAL” isn’t entirely high-tech, as it doesn’t seem to detect the actual cigarette smoke coming from a saved butt). By choosing to ignore so many flawed details the creative team of Russell, Peter Melnick (music) and Andy Sandberg (director/producer) are asking too much of their audience.
A solid premise and an attempt of believability must be built if one is going to pepper a show with racial, gender, sexual, and religious barbs. With perhaps a nod to Seth McFarlane no one is off limits here: Asian lesbians with disabilities? Check! Mormons, Christian evangelists, Jews, and stomas? Check, check, check and check! But unlike Seth McFarlane the politically incorrect jokes are neither funny nor remotely clever.
The abundance of sixteen musical numbers suggests a certain Hedwig and the Angry Inch premise. Seen at a certain angle, The Last Smoker In America is a concert with some dialogue tucked in here and there. Many of these songs are delivered as fantasy sequences, such as cast members dressed up as the Osmonds; some of the numbers are inspired, aided by Michael McDonald’s opulent costumes and Charlie Corcoran’s clever set design, but the sequences, instead of having a redeeming effect, become excessively annoying and tiring. How many times can the same theme be hammered over our heads? Some of the song titles tell it all: “Let The Lord Be Your Addiction,” “Hangin’ Out In A Smoky Bar,” “Fight For The Right To Light Up,” “The Last Cigarette,” and “If Our Lungs Could Only Talk.”
In The Last Smoker, a character has an agonizing addiction without a substance to abuse. But with the state of American Musical Theater, it is the audiences who are going through withdrawal.
photos by Joan Marcus
The Last Smoker In America
Westside Theatre/Upstairs in New York City
scheduled to close on September 1, 2012
for tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://lastsmoker.com/