Pat King (left) and Michael Vizzi. Photo by Tom McGrath, TCMcG Photography
By Aaron Lockman
YouTuber Lindsay Ellis does a fascinating video essay where she examines the thirty-year cycle of nostalgia in pop culture. In it, she makes a distinction between regular nostalgia and deconstructive nostalgia. Works like “Stranger Things” or “Back to the Future,” she argues, use nostalgia to elicit feelings of comfort and stability in its audience, both with their aesthetic and their pop culture references. Works like “The Iron Giant” or “IT,” on the other hand, use those comforting feelings to trick their audience into looking at the past more critically – examining how the rose-colored goggles of nostalgia may have blinded us to the less pleasant parts of our past.
MAD BEAT HIP AND GONE at Promethean Theatre Ensemble, then, toes a strange line between these two concepts. It really, really wants to be deconstructive with its nostalgia – but its execution is so infused with regular nostalgia that I often had trouble telling which one it was going for.
It’s the late 1940’s, and in the small Midwestern town of Kimball, Danny (Pat King) is fed up with his life. He’s just graduated from high school with no direction; he can’t get laid, and his overbearing and judgmental mom (played with comic precision by Elaine Carlson) seems to like his best friend Rich better than him. Upon discovering that a huge chunk of his family history has been a lie, Danny decides to set out on a road trip to find his long-lost father, dragging the perpetually cheerful Rich (Michael Vizzi) along for the ride. In the meantime, another young traveler, Honey (Hilary Williams) is trekking across the country as well, attempting to trace the same road trip to San Francisco that her mother took before she killed herself years ago. As she hitches a ride west with three random guys she met (a trio of unseen, pretentious poets named Jack, Neal, and Allan), she keeps encountering Albert (Ted Hoerl), a comforting yet ominous gas station attendant with a mysterious past of his own.
The actors all do incredible work here: director Jess Hutchinson has clearly gone out of her way to foster a bond between the ensemble and the text. Ted Hoerl has a haunting and charming presence as Albert, the wise yet sad knows-more-than-he-should father figure, and has some great moments where the details of his past are painstakingly and suspensefully revealed. And though Elaine Carlson is mostly working through a stereotype (that of the overbearing Christian mother from a small town who hoards a shameful family secret), she manages to wring out moments of humor, pathos, and wit. Hilary Williams is sad and wistful and charming as the manic pixie dream girl of this tale, and Pat King and Michael Vizzi are quite believable as two passionate, hopeful, flawed, goddamn American boys whose hearts and minds are enflamed by the thought of heading out on a road trip into the Great American West. . . and you’re beginning to see the problem here.
Though Stephen Dietz’s script is deftly written and contains loads of beautiful language, whether it appeals to you relies heavily on whether you feel the same wanderlusty American nostalgia that he does. And I just. . . don’t. I think many of my generation don’t, because, for us, America as a concept has simply lost its grandeur. Whether you want to attribute that to our bleak economic prospects, or America’s fall from grace on the world stage, or realizing that many of our grade-school history classes presented a very sanitized version of our bloody story, or any number of things. . . well, I’m getting off track, and also depressed.
The point is, the playwright tries to motivate his characters not only with a nostalgia that feels outdated, but a worldview as well. Danny and Rich are cartoonishly misogynist in that oh-so-quaint mid-20th-century way – and this makes our heroes flawed, which is interesting. But the way they are punished for it comes so late, and is so lackadaisical, that it mostly just makes their dynamic as friends exhausting to watch. When they eventually bump into Honey at a diner, the immediate ensuing competition for her affections is dull, predictable, and takes up most of Act Two.
The script, interestingly, does make attempts to be deconstructive about its nostalgia. And this leads to some frustrating turning points in the play that almost work. Spoiler: At the end, the whole road trip turns out to have been for nothing, and every character must face the fact that they were only running away from their problems. That is a compelling idea, but it is mostly expressed by characters getting more and more poetical in their speech, and talking less and less like people. Normally, I am a sucker for heightened language onstage, but it is a high-risk, high-reward tool. I was simply not invested enough in these people to care. Heightened language without motivation becomes word salad.
Every team member at Promethean is really giving their all, however. Sound designer Colin Kovarik does mind-boggling things creating the soundscape of the American road – the screeching of tires, the humming of engines, the rumbling of thunder in the distance, the symphony of travel. And the lights by Benjamin Carne are in turns comforting, spooky, and atmospheric. During one scene in Act Two where Rich encounters Albert for the first time, blue lights, thunderous sounds, and a sudden blackout create one of the most haunting moments I’ve seen onstage in recent memory.
And so despite its weak foundation, MAD BEAT HIP AND GONE ends up having many moments of clarity and nuance due to the sheer artistry on display. As a result, it often feels like we are being given glimpses of the great play this could have been, somewhere three drafts deep — and there’s something beautiful in that.