The Return to Morality
Irony is prevalent right from the moment you enter the new and improved Blue Room space, sit down, and then notice the several televisions flickering atop basalt-like pedestals of varying heights along the upstage wall. Television as deity? A cathode-eyed Polyphemus, devouring its victims head first? I had a hunch I was in for some good, old-fashioned American irony, the kind you don’t see too often of late.
And I wasn’t disappointed.
Playwright Jamie Pachino’s pointed satire The Return to Morality is a brisk, biting comedy that lunges for the trembling throats of sound-bite-fixated news media and platitude-dealing politicians alike, as well as artists, their art, and those who promote or become enamored of that art for the sake of that other fearful American deity, popularity. The play spares no one.
The story follows author Arthur Kellogg. He’s a college professor who has observed America’s slide into mindless agreement with any slickly packaged point of view thrown onto a TV screen. In response, he creates a Swiftian satire entitled The Return to Morality.
His publisher, a Mr. Le Becque, reads the thing without realizing the book’s true purpose. He loves it! Concerned more with possessing a potentially big-selling, controversial tome and promoting it that way, even after Kellogg explains the ironic intent of his work to the manic publisher, Le Becque exclaims, “We’ll do it anyway!”
From there we’re strapped onto an ICBM along with Kellogg and rocketed across a twisted media and political landscape, completely and deliriously out of control, with some sharp, momentary epiphanies scattered along the way, like random signposts warning “Freeway Ends Ahead.” Kellogg’s book is taken at face value, resulting in politically and even violently motivated groups embracing his tome’s seemingly radical “call to arms” and making horrific demands of its author.
As Kellogg, Quentin Colgan does a good job. He looks a bit like a tubby JFK and projects a kind of easy-going college professor vibe initially. Colgan’s Kellogg is just as overwhelmed as we are when faced with the whirlwind of the publishing and promotion game. As things spin more and more out of control, however, Colgan manages to convey clearly his character’s bewilderment, frustration and concern.
Slim Barkowska plays three different characters, including the manic, buck-crazed publisher Le Becque. Barkowska excels at these types, and his moments onstage are among the production’s most humorous.
Mary Crowlie does a generally enjoyable turn as Kellogg’s wife Jo. At first she’s just as caught up as he is in the swirl of perks that arrive with a flood of popularity. Yet it is she who most quickly realizes the falsity of their situation. It is Jo who reminds Kellogg of the original intent of his book, reawakening his sense of responsibility. Crowlie is a bit limited in the control of her voice, and her inability to alter her tone sufficiently during a key emotional moment bordered on annoying, but she gets the job done.
Also good were Giovanna Henery and Debbie Albert in a variety of roles, most notably as temptress Beverly/Mindy with the former and as a smart-ass nurse with the latter. Best of all, however, was Blue Room newcomer Jamel Shakir, who mercurially played a low-key book translator, a news reporter, a hip, happenin’ late-night talk show host, a nosy bartender and, most humorously, 60 Minutes‘ Ed Bradley.
Director Jeremy Votava has assembled a competent cast and orchestrated a break-neck-paced production. Lighting, sound and costumes were generally good, as well. Return to Morality continues at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, through Saturday, March 2, with a special Sunday-night performance on Feb. 17.