Friday, June 22, 2012

'3C': The Characters May Seem Familiar, But...

Cast of '3C.'  Photo by Walter McBride

By any chance, are you a fan of Bizarro World, DC Comics’ twisted version of the Superman universe?

If so, you may be able to relate to the very bizarre world inhabited by the characters in 3C, a scary new comedy by David Adjmi, currently on view at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. 

To begin with, there is something definitely familiar about the characters, and even the set strikes a bell.  Let’s see…hmm…

Oh, right.  Connie (Anna Chlumsky), the one wearing the baby doll nightie, looks kind of like Chrissy.  And Linda (Hannah Cabell) sort of reminds me of Janet.  And Brad (Jake Silbermann) resembles Jack.  Terry (Eddie Cahill) is Larry; Mr. Wicker (Bill Buell) is Mr. Roper; and Mrs. Wicker (Kate Buddeke) is Mrs. Roper.

I get it.  3C is short for "Three’s Company," the lightweight but long-lived comedy that ran on ABC TV back in the late 1970s and early ‘80s.

So what has Mr. Adjmi done with his source material to make it his own—apart from changing the characters’ names? 

Mostly, he has turned it into a creepy comedy about a group of deeply disturbed inhabitants of a Santa Monica apartment complex, who say things like “I love when I match the furniture; it gives me a sense of belonging” and “I’ve never been to Vietnam.  Was it nice?”

In the right context, these could be funny lines, but here all of the jokes are either deliberately designed to fall flat or take on darker shades of meaning.  Instead of the kind of silliness that drew audiences to "Three’s Company," 3C gives us psychological basket cases edging toward annihilation as they teeter through life. 

Connie sleeps around in a never-ending search for affectionate acceptance.  Linda flies into paranoid rages.  Terry is a disco womanizer.  Mr. Wicker is a sleazeball homophobe and sexual predator.  Mrs. Wicker is a spaced-out bundle of assorted anxieties. 

All have their moments in the spotlight, but the central character is Brad, a recent Vietnam War vet and a cooking school student.  Like Jack Tripper in "Three’s Company," Brad pretends to be gay in order to be acceptable to the landlords as a potential roommate for Connie and Linda. 

The thing is, Brad really is gay and is trying to survive in a 1970s world that is decidedly unfriendly. His parents have suggested that he kill himself; Mr. Wicker regales him with jokes regarding the questionable hygiene of unprotected anal sex; and Brad’s one sincere effort to come out is met with incredulous laughter from everyone.  Even Linda, who, when she’s not ranting, comes off as relatively sympathetic, is more prepared to believe that people are having nasal intercourse than that anyone she knows could actually be gay.

As Sartre wrote in No Exit:  “Hell is other people.” 

Veteran stage actors Bill Buell and Kate Buddeke as Mr. and Mrs. Wicker bring an experienced professional quality to their performances, and the rest of the cast does fine with roles that are essentially caricatures from an alternative cartoon world.

Director Jackson Gay keeps things moving at a steady clip along an unsteady path, and John McDermott’s stage design eerily captures the set of "Three’s Company." The disco-era music is giddily choreographed by Deney Terrio, whose claim to fame is having taught John Travolta how to move in the film Saturday Night Fever

There is no doubt that David Adjmi, the playwright, is a smart and clever writer.  He is the recipient of a number of awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, and his previous plays, Elective Affinities and Stunning, drew a lot of excited buzz.  It will be interesting to see where his mind will take him next, though I would love to see him create characters who are more human and less reflections of his cleverness.

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