A PLAY THAT GROPES FOR AN EXIT
William Missouri Downs’ The Exit Interview is a jumble of a play whose myriad directions are made more difficult to track by its opening pronouncement: Two exuberant cheerleaders (JoAnne Glover and Lisel Gorell-Getz), uniformed and pom-pommed, lead the audience in a spirited: “Give me an “O”! Give me an “F”! Give me another “F”! The audience dutifully complies, spelling “O-F-F-E-N-S-I-V-E”!
When a play spends it opening minutes making certain that I understand what I am about to see will be offensive, I expect to be offended. Or at least recognize that which might offend others. The only thing offensive on stage at the Lyceum is the weak humor and lack of boldness in the writing.
After assuring us that the play will be offensive, the perky gals launch into a laundry list of topics that promise to be skewered: Religion, politics, women in the workplace, school shootings, babies run over by trains, Fox News, and Priests defending the Holy Trinity. Admittedly it’s all done with a wink and a nod, but that doesn’t assuage the emptiness that accompanies a promise unfulfilled. Yes, the play hits on all those topics, but nothing approaches the offense level of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, or even South Park’s more tame “Jackin-it in San Diego,” where a cartoon Mayor Jerry Saunders encourages visitors to whack off in the streets. So it’s bewildering why such a claim would be made.
But let’s get on to the story, assuming it can be found. Professor Richard Fig (Herbert Siguenza), has recently been pink-slipped from his university due to budget cutbacks. He attends a mandatory exit interview, presumably to ease his transition to the private sector. “You are Dick Fig. Correct?” asks the HR interviewer Eunice (Linda Libby). “Richard,” he replies. She checks the paperwork. “It says you’re a Dick.” (Mercifully there are funnier moments. But not many.)
The interview quickly devolves from potential conflict with an insensitive university administration to a series of absurd, although occasionally intriguing questions: Eunice asks: “If your bride said: ‘But my first love is the oboe,’ would you still marry?” Professor Fig is stunned that a random psychological test could possibly have known that his first girlfriend was an oboe player. The devoutly religious Eunice assures him, “We can’t read meaning into life’s random events.”
Directed by Sam Woodhouse, the play careens through flashbacks and current events. Many scenes have no connection to Professor Fig or Eunice except in a broader thematic context: Soccer Moms discover the scientific method despite having all their knowledge controlled by cable TV; competing scientists morph into evangelical fervor over their respective protein studies; Mitt Romney is baptized by a rabbi, etc.
The actual interview quickly evaporates in the middle of Act One when the campus is locked down as a shooter, apparently sent into a tizzy over low-sodium V-8, starts picking off students and faculty. Eunice eventually faces the shooter, confronts her doubts and, in the play’s only ironic moment, makes her own exit to surprising effect.
Playwright Downs wants the audience to confront the absurdity of existence through a series of comic scenes loosely attached to the interview. He wants the audience to resist being entertained and focus their cognitive powers on big questions, like the purpose of life. Unfortunately, he fills his play with two-dimensional characterizations, well-worn humor, and too few provocative insights.
The Exit Interview is essentially a flawed sketch / cabaret dealing primarily with religious contradictions and the media’s effect on what we accept as truth. Some of it’s funny, a lot of it is not, and much of it is too feebly stitched together to give any coherent arc to Professor Fig’s journey.
But then, that’s not what Mr. Downs is after either. He announces within the play the use of Bertolt Brecht’s Alienation Device: the constant effort to keep the audience thinking objectively about the play rather than losing themselves in it: Commercials interrupt scenes in progress, and Downs himself makes an appearance from Wyoming, via digitally recorded projection, announcing script changes. Also, characters break into song at incongruous moments – in one such instance, the stereotyped mid-western mother of Fig’s girlfriend prays for his salvation. Fig responds singing:
“Mrs. Meredith, you do know that prayer doesn’t work
Several-studies-have-shown that prayer has no perks
Duke University worked with Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists too
To make sure the study was unbiased they threw in a Jew”
All of this might have worked better if the lyrics had more bite, the comedy more edge, and the probe into philosophical conundrums more depth.
The Exit Interview is one of five National New Play Network Rolling World Premieres. It has already been staged in Orlando. Subsequently it will play in Philadelphia, Iowa City and Charlotte. So the script could change. Here’s hoping Mr. Downs takes full advantage of that opportunity.
photos by Darren Scott
The Exit Interview
San Diego Repertory Theatre at the Lyceum
scheduled to close on October 21, 2012
for tickets call 619-544-1000 or visit http://www.sdrep.org