Cherry Red Productions has made something of a name for itself over the past nine years by being avant-garde and over-the-top. How appropriate, then, that the company’s new play, “Cinema Verite,” by Wendy MacLeod (“The House of Yes”), mocks the pop-art sensibilities of Andy Warhol and the culture that sprung up around him in the mid-1960s. What a pity it is that they didn’t do a better job.
“Cinema Verite” revolves around avant-garde artist/filmmaker Lazlo (Marcus Lawrence), who recruits a group of cultish devotees he calls “Star Babies” to act in his films, participate in his “happenings” and amuse him with their gradual self-destruction. The Star Babies – Baby Aubrey (John Horn), Baby Maybelline (Kate Debelack) and Fabula Rasa, (Brent Lowder) – have gathered together with Lazlo at a press conference to mourn the passing of their dearest friend and fellow Star Baby, Baby Amore, who burned to death at the stake while making one of Lazlo’s films. The play is structured like an absurdist press conference, with Lazlo moderating as everyone sits around a cramped little table at the center of a very tiny stage.
The play is staged at a bar, “Chief Ike’s Mambo Room.” The place doesn’t really look like a mambo room, although it does have a sort of faux-funk charm to it. But, this quickly evaporates once the show begins. When I walked in they handed me a press kit and two vouchers for free drinks. “We’re funnier when you’re drunk,” they said. While that’s true of most poorly conceived comedies, rarely are the instructions that explicit, or is following them to the letter that necessary. Sadly, I don’t drink. But by the end of the night I really wished I did.
About 25 people crowded around the stage in a cramped, uncomfortable huddle, facing two speakers blaring ’60s psychedelic rock at maximum volume, because sitar music is only cool if your ears are bleeding. The place felt hot, noisy and claustrophobic; it was hardly the kind of space you’d want to watch a play in, much less a train wreck like this.
The play has no action – the actors merely discuss Baby Amore’s death with an air of casual disinterest, spouting semi-witticisms as they reflect on art and the meaninglessness of it all. Alleged bon-motes like “Amphetamines don’t give you piece of mind, but they make not having it a lot more interesting” and “Never eat breakfast. It’s a stupid meal” abound. If pretentious one-liners are your thing, then be my guest, but they get old fast.
Ten minutes into it, the alleged witticisms and the cast’s vacuous preening are already worn thin. Suddenly, Tommy Roe’s 1969 hit “Sweet Pea” comes blaring over the speaker and the cast go-go dances for the song’s duration. For no reason. It was like being stuck in an episode of “Laugh-In.” I know what they’re mocking, and it’s still not funny. They do the lip-sync and boogie routine twice more, not including the two minutes spent listening to Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes” as everyone on stage stares off into space. It is a gaudy, pretentious, terribly paced kitsch-a-thon, with the actors hamming it up to an 11, in case this turquoise and paisley nightmare is too subtle for you.
The best thing I can say about “Cinema Verite” is that it’s short, perhaps 40 minutes long, with a reel of short films following it. The films are supposed to be different every night, but the ones I saw didn’t exactly make up for the show I’d just sat through. One of them involved nothing but a guy dancing in his underwear for two minutes before whipping his penis out. If I’d paid the regular ticket price of $15 to have my senses numbed and my intelligence insulted only to be shown a penis, I’m pretty sure I would’ve killed someone, so thank goodness for press passes.
Over-the-top is one thing, but “Cinema Verite” is neither offensive nor provocative, nor even particularly funny. It is just crass and garish – an art house film, sans art. If you insist on undertaking Cherry Red’s latest voyage, take their advice and get really drunk before you go. It won’t make the show any better, but with any luck you’ll be too incapacitated to hurt anyone when your sense of consumer outrage kicks in.