Bert Hellmun Fight’s The Demons of the Stage – A Review
“Burt Hellmun Fights the Demons Of The Stage”
Written by: Dan Kehde
Directed by: Dan Kehde
Starring: Donnie Smith, Nick Tidquist, Jackie Cobb, Kim Waybright, Montana Rock, Sean Price, Robbie Hughes, Jenny Totten, Lauren Mallory and Heather Newhouse.
I’m tempted to refer to Thursday night’s opening performance of “Burt Hellmun Fights The Demons Of The Stage” as “Dan Kehde Laments the Mediocrity of Modern Theater.” The play is set up that way. After years of struggling against the status quo, we could forgive Mr. Kehde for using his unprecedented platform of little seen original theater to lament the fact that his unprecedented platform is little seen. After all, more people will watch Jersey Shore reruns this weekend than will watch this show. That’s a real shame because Jersey Shore isn’t nearly as witty as Burt Hellmun, and somehow Burt Hellmun still manages to have more sex.
However, the real surprise is that Burt Hellmun isn’t that rage against the machine we may had anticipated. Instead, Kehde has produced a rare comic satire that delivers as many laughs as it does jabs.
Here are the basics: The play, which is billed as a “Sexy Farce” (probably ironically so) about New Jersey playwright Burt Hellmun. The play chronicles Hellmun’s 40+ year career, charting his evolution form artistically ripe failure to emotionally vacant success. Along the way he has sex, gets married, becomes a failure, gets divorced, has sex again, becomes a success, has more sex, deals with his dead alcoholic mother, has even more sex, becomes a success, becomes a failure and gets divorced. There’s also a dimly lit orgy early in the first act.
For those of you who are still reading beyond ‘dimly lit orgy’ There’s a lot to contemplate in this piece.
Like most of Kehde’s shows, it bounces between distinct levels of reality: The forward narrative of Hellmun arguing with his amoral opportunist producer Jack, performances of Hellmun’s increasingly absurd plays, and flashback’s to Hellmun’s troubled relationship with his mother. It takes a few minutes to get used to it in this case, but once Kehde establishes the geography of his theatrical universe, we’re off to the races, witness to a series of quick witted satirical vignettes which span through all the major theater movements of the late 20th century. Personal favorites include the Paula Vogel by way of Working Girl inspired “Fluff” and a nude murder mystery with the classic tagline “a concealed weapon wasn’t the problem.”
It goes without saying that Burt is a cipher for Kehde. In this way, the play mirrors the later work of Woody Allen, playing the author as ironic comic antihero. This idea is simultaneously deprecating and indulgent. Many of the play-within a plays mirror the work of Kehde with a surprising level of self-deprecation.
So much of the play’s success hinges on the success and comic timing of its principal actors. Donnie Smith takes a bold and endearing approach to Burt, infusing him with alternating currents of comic glee, bemusement, and mounting frustration. His clever and sly performance by Donnie Smith as Burt gives us enough distance to not be too troubled when Burt continually sleeps with his leading ladies. .
More importantly he’s really funny. Imagine “Barton Fink” crossed with William Daniels from “St Elsewhere” and you’ll get Burt. Additionally, Nick Tidquist’s comic performance Burt’s psychotically amoral producer Jack creates some of the show’s best laugh out loud moments, particularly in his interplay with Burt’s moral compasses/sometimes lovers Sally Ann and Veronica (played respectively by Jackie Cobb and Kim Waybright).
One could argue that Smith’s portrayal of Burt as a passive opportunist manipulated by forces beyond his control could be seen as either a clever flip of Kehde’s public persona or a slight-of-hand used to slowly interpolate the audience into the second act’s anti-populist polemic.
What’s surprising is how complicated that anti-populist polemic actually proves. We need not believe at the outset that Burt is a good playwright, only that he is capable of being a good playwright, and the play never resolves one way or the other on Hellmun’s talent. The narrative seems more interested in whether or not Burt Hellman should be a good playwright than in whether or not he is. Anyone who is paying attention knows where the play is going to come down on this argument. However, Its pretty fun to watch how we get there.
With all of this Brechtian dialectic going on, it would be easy to think this play was a chore. Not so. This is one of the most consistently funny plays I’ve seen in a long time, that rare satire that makes you laugh with the characters instead of at them. Kehde has figured out that he can basically say whatever he wants to the audience as long as he makes them laugh. It’s a transaction that I’m more than willing to make because most of the jokes work.
The jokes themselves work on three levels. First, the quippy one liners play off of the basest of comic devices: the double entendre. Secondly, they utilize inside jokes and references to local and national theater trends that reward repeat engagement. Finally, the jokes themselves act as a postmodern meta-joke, satirizing the absurdity and emotional fraud of modern comic dialogue. This level of proto-dadaist dialogue delivery comes to life in the mouths of an ensemble who manage to keep their tongue deeply planted in their cheek while never seeming remotely disingenuous. Montana Brock’s hand obsessed actor seems to genuinely believe in the words that he’s saying in the play-within-a-play, even though the way that he’s saying the words hes saying are ridiculous.
Again heady stuff, but the actors pull it off. Comedy is so difficult to do well, and so I’m very happy to see this project take this approach. The actors spit out quick witted linkes like a well-oiled machine. Special credit goes to Kim Waybright and Jackie Cobb for are able to add nuance to the obligatory moral compass role while wearing very little.
The play never antagonizes the audience with his jabs, and the work never assumes it has the moral high ground. After all, who can blame Burt for placating his producer Jack with emotionally bankrupt retweekings of his scripts when the results seem so rewarding. As Hellmun begins to sacrifice more and more of his artistic integrity, we see him rise through the ranks of the Theater world, enjoying his success with a series of on again off again relationships with his leading ladies, whose success is dictated by the public reception of his shows. Jack asserts that audiences would rather have emotionally dishonest fluff (One of the play-within-a-plays is actually called “Fluff”) than challenging emotionally wrought drama. When Hellmun finally takes a stand for that rare drama the results are disastrous.
One of the most powerful moments of the play came in the second act, when a review of Hellmun’s passion project about ghosts is read. The review underscores the idea that the play, while brilliant, is out of step with modern audience expectations. In a cruel irony, by the time Hellmun is ready to write what he wants to write, its too late. Time has robbed Hellmun’s masterpiece of its relevance.
Kehde too is fighting against time. Following the theatrical lineage of Reich and Brecht, his writing comes from a bygone golden age of rhetorical honesty, where extreme emotional and political truth area always vying for time. Audiences trained to expect obsessive nuns, dead rock stars and Gilbert & Sullivan may no longer willing to accept characters speaking their mind, taking a stand.
Furthermore, the fact that the audience I saw the play with consistently laughed at the jokes in this show proves that there is at least some truth in Jack’s assertion that “Comedy Sells. Drama Smells.” Jack is right in as much as modern audiences do feel that they deserve they get their money’s worth, and the question of whether or not original theater can survive economic hardship is real. Again, it’s the jokes that make the play’s point of view compelling, not the other way around.
Still the success of this show gives me hope for the expression of more complex ideas on stage. Whatever has gotten into Dan Kehde, let’s hope it never leaves.
July 23 and 24 and 29 through 31 at the West Virginia State University Capitol Center Theater 123 Summers Street, Charleston.
Each performance starts at 8 p.m. with tickets available at the door the evenings of the performances Tickets are $5.50 for students and seniors (65 plus) and $9.50 for adults.