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Up in Smoke 

A musical comedy sums up our grave new world

Monday, Oct 9 2006
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Writer-director Julien Nitzberg and composer Roger Neill’s light opera, The Beastly Bombing: A Terrible Tale of Terrorists Tamed by True Love (world-premiering at the Steve Allen Theater), is a striking concoction of urbane nihilism and Victorian charm. It could become a cult classic, a political valentine to the first decade of the new century.

Things start with the bombing of the Brooklyn Bridge, during which nobody gets killed. September 11 is never mentioned, nor is Iraq. The show’s respectfulness and restraint end there. Everything else — Bush-family parodies, vignettes about skinheads, Japanese warriors unaware that World War II has ended, religious extremists and conspiracy theories — turns on the sharp spit of the creators’ satire, while the world goes up in smoke.

By all rights, Nitzberg and Neill’s black-hearted creation should be awful. In addition to transforming Islam, Judaism, al Qaeda and American foreign policy into cartoons scribbled on cocktail napkins, The Beastly Bombing contains everything we already know about the lunacy of international politics and have seen before, from Jon Stewart all the way back to Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 movie, Dr. Strangelove.

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In the 21st century, we’ve seen the old optimism spawned by nuclear-nonproliferation treaties and other gestures of cooperation quickly evaporate in the face of new generations of religious zealots and nuclear-saber rattlers, plus the added delights of global warming. So how does an artist — languishing on the fringes of power in this society — cope with the prospect of our imminent demise, made manifest by those in power?

In the late ’40s and early ’50s, Samuel Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot and Endgame; 10 years later, Kubrick came up with Dr. Strangelove, though I always found these works more alarming/depressing than funny. But they were also amazing for their capacity to hold Armageddon in their knapsacks while clicking their heels on the way to the graveyard. Even through all the contortions of farce, they just felt so true. Though the classical rules tell us that comedy hangs on the possibility of redemption, Beckett and Kubrick offered none, nor does The Beastly Bombing. These are all ironic, nihilistic comedies, conjured by the sight of a civilization suffering a heart attack of its own making. Only a mental patient or a believer in the Rapture should find mirth in that. Why, then, does The Beastly Bombing feel so fresh, almost sweet?

For the answer to this, you have to turn to the Secret Order of Revolutionary Operettists (SORO), a secret society founded, rumor has it, by Nitzberg and Neill — a pair of punk rockers who made one CD that went nowhere, then turned their attentions to light opera. SORO’s clandestine Web site sheds little light on the organization’s origins, though its manifesto condemns the decadence of the 12-tone scale, of minimalism in art, of jazz, of everything that isn’t “lovely” and “melodic.” This leads it to praise Offenbach and the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan — from whom Neill’s score and Nitzberg’s lyrics so gleefully derive.

One scene in The Beastly Bombing has the secretary of state (Natalie Salins) giving U.S. President Dodgeson (Jesse Merlin) intelligence that the Saudis are responsible for the bombing of the bridge, to which the president responds with disbelief and replies in song, as though with a lyric by Tom Lehrer, with a vain and melodramatic jollity:

Some say about terrorism I’m a fraud,

’Cause I love, I love, I love the house of Saud.

When I see their princes, I just applaud,

Oh I love, I love, I love the house of Saud . . .

Fellas can drive but not the broads,

Oh I love, I love, I love the house of Saud.

An interchange between the secretary of state and the president follows: “But, sir, they’ve got no democracy.”/“What’s so goddamn bad about theocracy?”/“But they observe no human rights.”/“If I could do that too, I just might! I-La la la la la la la-la-la-la.”

A few scenes later, the president spins a globe, looking for some unknown little country to blame, his finger landing on Chad. (“Just the sound of it makes me mad.”) Let the bombs start dropping.

Nitzberg stages the mayhem as a frolic by a fine company that includes Heather Marie Marsden and Darrin Revitz as the president’s two daughters, in New York on a drug quest. Jill McGraw’s baroque production design features, literally, a huge storybook with pages that unfold to create a new scenic backdrop, which frames the musical’s bristling ironies. Accused of the bombing, which they were too inept to pull off, skinheads (Jacob Sidney and Aaron Matijasic) and al Qaeda terrorists (Andrew Ableson and Russell Steinberg) dance (in Allen Walls’ stylishly flippant choreography) incognito in Hasidic garb (comic-book costumes by Susan Matheson). The chilling finale features a mocking celebration of love (one skinhead and terrorist unite romantically behind their common hatred of Israel), while everyone looks out at fireworks (“Oooh!” “Aaaah!”) that are actually missiles. For all that, the work’s most revolutionary accomplishment is to challenge the newspaper reality of plays like David Hare’s Stuff Happens by arriving at truths through caricatures. Its lunatic explanations seem to make more sense than the news imparted by press conferences and editorial pages. And even if they don’t, they’re a lot more entertaining.??

THE BEASTLY BOMBING | Written and directed by JULIEN NITZBERG | Composed and musically directed by ROGER NEILL | Presented by THE SECRET ORDER OF REVOLUTIONARY OPERETTISTS and THE STEVE ALLEN THEATER at the CENTER FOR INQUIRY–WEST, 4773 Hollywood Blvd., L.A. | Through Nov. 18 | (800) 595-4849 or ?www.steveallentheater.com

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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