An Impossible Dream: “Boom Boom Room”

On this day 225 years ago, Parisian crowds stormed a hated prison where those who didn’t fit society’s dream had long been hidden away — criminals, critics of the regime (including the Marquis de Sade), mentally challenged and mentally ill people .

Last night, I watched a 40-year-old play in which, I think, playwright David Rabe and the 2Cents Theatre Group were trying to do the same thing.

Juan Lozano, Kate Bowman, Eric Geller

Juan Lozano, Kate Bowman, Eric Geller

In the Boom Boom Room tells the tale of Chrissy, a South Philly girl who dreams of being a Broadway dancer.  She’s naive, uneducated, not very intelligent, not gifted with a dancer’s body, and untrained.
She pursues her vision (and her hopes of being loved) in a sleazy go-go bar.  She fails.

Kate Bowman, an appealing, energetic actor with a strong resumé, has dreamed of playing Chrissy “for several years.”  She and director Kristin Boulé share a vision — of Chrissy’s story as  “an exciting exploration [of a] magical world.”  They pursue it by staging Rabe’s script.  They fail.

From what I saw of it, the script is as lousy and dishonest as the go-go bar.  Their chances were no better than Chrissy’s.

[Disclaimer:  I only saw the first half of this production.  For only the second time in my life, I decided not to return after intermission, so  disheartened was I by what I had already seen.]

I think Rabe envisioned Chrissy as a valiant innocent, deprived of all the advantages her society confers upon others.  I think he imagined — with a bit of hubris — that he could tell her story, raising a flag to help free poor women from the misogynistic prison of patriarchy.

Being a playwright, I know you need a bit of hubris to tell someone else’s tale.  But you also need empathy — understanding, feeling and respect for the people you write about.  Rabe didn’t have it.  Or if he did, he left it in his desk drawer.

His characters — all of them — are caricatures.  Susan the kindly whore (faithfully rendered by Kristin Miller);  the vapid but sweet dancers; Chrissy’s intrusive father (Cris D’Annunzio, who tries nobly and gets close); her flagrantly nelly neighbor Guy (come on, David — Guy?), into whom K.C. Lindley pours everything he’s got.  Her date Eric (Chris Lanehart), a dime-store Woody Allen.  All are merely  sketched in, stereotypes without depth or subtlety.

The closest Rabe comes to exploring character is with his homage to Of Mice and Men — the sex-addicted alcoholic Al (Eric Geller, who does “menacing” well) and his deranged homicidal sidekick Ralphie (an equally unnerving Juan Lozano).  But Steinbeck’s George and Lennie have become stock figures, and Rabe’s stick-figure copies  share no trust or love, show no vulnerability.

Chrissy’s our protagonist, onstage so long and undergoing so much that surely … but no, she learns nothing from her picaresque misadventures.  (Rather like De Sade’s dim victim heroines.) Bowman makes an unyielding effort to fill the stage, and her character.  She’s nonstop, and easily connects us to Chrissy’s big, hopeful heart.  But there’s nowhere for her to go.

Director Boulé woefully compounds the problem.  She has her actors wandering all over the stage without motive,  shifting acting styles without notice.  Unfortunately following Rabe’s jerky, unfocused writing, she creates an experience as scattered and strewn as Christy’s bedroom.

The set doesn’t help.  Designer Tom Buderwitz solved the problem of shifting between bar and bedroom by making a bed and hassock slide niftily out from under the bar’s upstage platform — which alas, has little other purpose.  It takes up a third of the stage, but goes almost unused.  Save when Chrissy’s visitors take a notion to  wander through her bedroom’s back wall and drape themselves upon it.

Buderwitz’s clunky, square set turns a ton of thick plywood (no wonder Anawalt Lumber leads the “Special Thanks”) into relentlessly symmetrical huge boxes, making the go-go bar as unappealing as a stalag.  Three dance poles, with hanging mics, are set right at the audience’s feet; nobody uses them in Act 1.  They do use the doors, one of which crashed through its wall and had to be prized out by an actor trying to exit.

And Chrissy delivers many lines while pulling a heavy frame out of the top of one large box, to reveal her bedroom mirror — then  pushing it back down as the scene ends.   (In addition to constantly turning over a wall hanging that doubles as her bulletin board.)

In this story, Chrissy’s dancing — and her attempts to win love — are inept.  Nothing else should be.  The artists who gather to tell Chrissy’s story must be skilled, focused, at the top of their game and working together as one, in a clear direction.   Only some them of them are.

But the one most to blame is Rabe. His lazy, self-indulgent writing makes everyone else’s job almost impossible.  He was on a career roll in 1974, Broadway demanding more scripts after the success of his Vietnam plays — and maybe, under pressure, he blew it.

As long ago as 1994, a Chicago critic called In the Boom Boom Room “a three act dinosaur” without “anything of importance to say,” long since dismissed as “a tedious exploration of a well-worn theme … like an episode of Geraldo.”  Ironically, he was writing to praise a troupe who had somehow lifted this clunker into “a soaring evening of theatre … [a] delicate blend of satire, lyricism and pathos.”

The 2Cents Theatre Group couldn’t pull it off.  Like Chrissy, they tried.  But like Chrissy, they had the odds stacked against them.

Forty years ago, there was work aplenty to be done in exposing our patriarchal culture and storming its prisons.  There still is.  Trying to make a viable play out of In the Boom Boom Room is one of the least promising ways I can think of.

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In the Boom Boom Room, by David Rabe, directed by Kristin Boulé.
Presented by the 2Cents Theatre Group at the Hudson Theatre Mainstage, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 7:00, through August 3.

Tickets:  <www.plays411.com/boomboom> or (323) 960-7785.