For a third consecutive week, theater in Reno has found religion. This time, Brüka Theatre ponders the infinite with Bruce Jay Friedman’s Steambath, directed by Mary Bennett. Since there is no meaningful way to discuss the play without revealing the main card it has up its sleeve, and Steambath doesn’t rely on surprise, I’ll cut to the chase: This is no normal steambath, its patrons don’t know how they got there, and the attendant who sweeps its floors may or may not be the Creator.
The premise is fertile ground for the two great themes of the American stage: 1) the underpinnings of mortality, and 2) wacky high jinks. Over the course of a slightly overlong two-plus hours, Steambath explores such timeless questions about the afterlife as whether guys are still horny when they are dead, whether homosexuality is still nothing more than a one-punchline gag, and how much whiskey God can drink (yes, yes, and a lot).
Steambath achieves its comic effects by juxtaposing assorted oddball characters and their accounts of living and dying. And then there’s God (Jorge Hoyos): a Puerto Rican janitor who performs cheap parlor tricks and decides peoples’ fates with a machine He might have borrowed from Chuck E. Cheese. The focal character, Tandy (Scott Dundas), is the straight man to the zany rascal of a deity. Dundas is a naturally gifted actor who handles the material well. That is to say, he deftly runs the gamut of emotions one would feel if one were, you know, trapped in a hypothetical bathhouse purgatory.
Though Friedman is a renowned writer (he penned such cerebral fare as Splash and Stir Crazy, among others), his needlessly crass script is the least successful element of Brüka’s production. The laugh-a-minute dialogue is often tiresome, and while it may be irreverent to have God refer to a black person as a spade, it is, alas, not very funny. Friedman was probably attempting profundity via a barrage of racism and sexism, but 30-odd years after inception, it just comes off as crude.
Because of issues with the material, I found Steambath‘s overall effect uneven. I was impressed by Jorge Hoyos’ smooth, larger-than-life turn as the attendant, amazed by Andy Luna’s commitment to repulsiveness as a disgusting slob (not to mention his horrific comb-over), admiring of the polished Bill Ware as an unsuccessful stockbroker, and appreciative of Patty Knutson’s oblivious sex appeal as the half-naked woman in a roomful of men. Yet in spite of all this, I was too often staring blankly as yet another joke failed to hit its mark.
When Steambath is not consumed with being a comedy, i.e., when it drops the exhaustingly clever banter and allows its characters to truly reflect on their mortality, sparks fly. The climax, wherein a desperate Tandy pleads his case for living again, is as dramatic and tense as theater gets. But because this scene is so excellently acted and staged, it highlights how weak and frivolous the balance of the script is.
On the whole, my annoyance with the script shouldn’t overshadow the rest of a well-rounded production. Brüka’s Steambath boasts talented actors, a seamless set with some slick bells and whistles, and a striking intimacy in its staging. While the play’s comic aptitude is underwhelming, it is challenging and thought-provoking on other levels. Just don’t expect too many answers unless you’ve always wondered whether they have pork rinds in the great beyond.