How and Why I Robbed My First Cheese Store
Written By Mike Gorman
Directed By Dave Bennett
Boring. Pompous. Pretentious. These are all words Mike Gorman's smart new meta-dramatic vamp, How and Why I Robbed My First Cheese Store
, uses to describe itself. The play about its own conception treads familiar absurdist tracks at La MaMa
(through June 5), and can be a little harsh. Dave Bennett's decidedly camp staging, with breaks for garish interludes of interpretive dance and synchronized pliés, takes very unrewarding but very thoughtful risks. The many layers of theatricality and subtext obfuscate the sheer brilliance with which the actors portray colossal douche-bag actor types. Who ever said properly performed douchebaggery couldn't be enjoyable?
Much like Ira Levin's 1977 Deathtrap
, the longest-running comedy-thriller ever on Broadway, Cheese Store
is about its own script. Both begin with a humorous, cheeky exploration of their own title. But unlike "Deathtrap," which is informed and completed by the action that follows in the two acts of Deathtrap
, Cheese Store
never really goes beyond the title. Typical of the tradition on which it draws, nothing exactly "happens." Daven (Alan B. Netherton), the egoistic "Artistic Director of one of the most innovative theater companies in New York," The Mad Horse Theater, merely recounts to his actors how a young homeless man named Jim (Joe Mullen) approached him with the titular play. What unfolds is a kind of cycle of recollection and repetition where moments of the past are replayed countless times, bringing the action infinitely close, but never into the present. Jim approached Daven with the play; Daven recounts it. Daven invites Jim to the theater to discuss the play; Jim makes Daven and the actors replay the encounter themselves. Little is learned about the actual script within this play beyond the "ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous" revelation that the homeless playwright wrote the title in Cheez Whiz.
The main concern throughout is the notion of proper behavior, knowing "how to act" in a given situation. Factors like Travis York's genuinely funny performance as Bruce, Daven's mentally challenged indentured servant who stashes old newspapers and "keeps the scores... pairing the NBA and the Burmese Badminton League," and the irrational, game-structured horror of the Mad Horse troupe, muddy this notion of proper behavior. York's character fulfills the absurdist trope of domination and embraces a vaudevillian shtick: a two and three syllable stichomythic exchange with Jim and endless repetition of "Sir" that run with a gripping beat.
Nevertheless, the production's peculiar treatment of the fourth wall as a mirror turns the work on its head and finally grounds it in naturalism. It's not immediately apparent—and only becomes so from late cues in the dialogue—that you're not just watching bad, annoying actors address the audience rather uncomfortably, but actors portraying these types of characters in an imagined theater, starring into a mirror, perhaps a two-way mirror, rather well. This might reduce the piece to only an absurd-ish play, but it still works as a considered satire of dramatic realism's fracture point. The question remains: what happens when good actors in a kitchen sink drama perform well?
(Photos: Benjamin Gustafsson)