Heil! Heil! The Gang’s All Here

Photo by Craig Schwartz

The old admonishment against discussing politics and religion at the dinner table may have, over the years, been taken to heart by Broadway, which thinks it knows box-office poison when it sees it — though political debate still rings loud and clear at regional and 99-seat theaters. In recent years, however, a tendency has developed for plays to float politics without the debate. Presumed to present cautionary tales, these are actually reassuring entertainments in which playwrights lazily condemn the political allergies of their audiences.

Two such works have premiered locally at the Lillian Theater: Larry Gold’s The Sons of Lincoln and Steven Berkoff’s one-act Brighton Beach Scumbags, which is making its American debut after opening in London six years ago. Gold’s play about a cadre of neo-Nazis hanging out in a Glendale basement is the more ambitious project. The cellar in question is the headquarters of the Corporate Coalition of True White America, a kind of Boys Club for unfocused young bigots. The leader of this improbably named group is a high school teacher named Lincoln (Bill Fagerbakke), who eschews the cruder vocabulary of traditional racists and forms media alliances with conservative black radio personalities and Jewish TV producers. This Lincoln may be no Abe, but he’s no Rockwell either. He is, instead, a public-relations master who forbids his acolytes from uttering profanities or from presenting slovenly appearances to the world. Lincoln’s advice to his crew may as well be, “No shirt, no shoes, no cross burning.”

Two things go on in Gold’s play: an internal power struggle among the four young sociopaths, and Lincoln’s ploy of gaining TV airtime for the CCTWA. This first component is, forgive the expression, colored by the loathing that Skull (Jonathan Avildsen) and Floss (Chad Allen) direct toward an egghead named Pinch (Tony Colitti), a mixed-race comrade whom they deem tainted by “monkey blood.” The second is basically a self-loathing contest led by J.J. Stiggs (Joel Polis), the Jewish TV producer who runs the franchise for a Geraldo-type “talk” show and who has conned a black actor friend, Calvin Love (Glynn Turman), to appear as an audience shill. J.J. and Calvin had a professional history together back in the ’60s, when they both had ideals and dreams, but along came blaxploitation films and Hollywood careers; today, Calvin is trying to jump-start his with a demeaning appearance on J.J.’s program, but the repulsive behavior of Lincoln’s boys during a pre-show meeting makes it increasingly hard for him.

While Gold makes some interesting points about his media-savvy antagonist’s self-serving outreach to assimilationist Jews and blacks, I never had the slightest idea of Lincoln’s agenda, other than to manipulate the insecurities of troubled white men and to run for Congress. (This hardly makes him different from any Glendale Republican.) I mean, if he represents a new, yuppified Hitler, what’s his mission statement, how does he differ from a filling-station variety of Nazi like Tom Metzger? Similarly, this character, as portrayed by Fagerbakke, never reveals any of the Svengali-like charisma he reputedly possesses, but shambles about the stage like Al Gore on Prozac. And, while the rest of the cast mostly acquits itself well under Valerie Landsberg’s expert direction, even she fudges things by relying too often on having “the boys” roughhouse their way through stretches of flat dialogue, as though having them deliver lines while swinging from scaffold piping or doing chin-ups is the only way of enlivening the night. In the end, Gold’s satire seems less like a fully realized play than a pastiche of neo-Nazi poses struck by the Bowery Boys.

If The Sons of Lincoln presents the face of organized fascism, Steven Berkoff’s Brighton Beach Scumbags shows the inert, blobby side of bigotry. Dinah and Derek (Jacquie Barnbrook and Ron Bottitta) and Dave and Doreen (Brye Cooper and Emma Stafford) are two married English couples on holiday. They sit in beach chairs drinking beer, eating cheeseburgers and unburdening themselves of the usual working-class concerns: dislike of gays, blacks and foreigners, and a fascination with Britain’s motorway system. When they temporarily decamp for other parts of the beach, their position is taken by two gay men (Field Blauvelt and Nathan Hill), who seem, by comparison, ethereal Übermenschen, although, if you listen carefully, you can discern a faint class disdain for “beasts” who work with their hands and live “trapped” in lifelong marital commitments. I’ve heard complaints that the two gay men are stereotypes, but this opinion overlooks the fact that our four yobs are barely cardboard cutouts.

Of course, some of this has to do with Paul Quinn’s staging. When BBS opened in 1994 at the Riverside Theater in Hammersmith, Berkoff played the role of Derek and, by all accounts, chewed the scenery through to the studs. Even with two actors from the British Isles, however, the Lillian’s cast seems to treat the East End lingo as a foreign language. Also, the two male leads frankly aren’t bulky enough to portray what Bill Buford described in Among the Thugs as “bloated examples of an island race who [were] a great, fatty manifestation of the history of pub opening hours, of gallons and gallons of lager and incalculable quantities of bacon-flavored crisps.”

The ultimate problem is that Berkoff couldn’t make Will Rogers a likable person; although he’s a shrewd observer of human behavior, he’s also incapable of creating sympathetic characters. Where another author might take BBS’s diametrically opposed characters and discover a narrow common ground that may say something about their time and culture, Berkoff is merely content to pin tails on his cockney donkeys. So after about an hour, the play ends, and guess what? We feel even smugger and more superior to Derek and his mates than they do to gays and minorities.

As technology develops more complex and subtle methods of information gathering, our tendency onstage is to simplify social issues to visceral blood clots. But there’s a difference between a play with a viewpoint that’s debated and one that’s nothing but viewpoint.

Twelve Angry Men had an opinion, yet writer Reginald Rose wasn’t content to simply have it stated and then “attacked” by a buffoon or two. Instead, he planted, in his sweltering jury room of apparent rock-solid consensus, a conscience that the audience member hoped was his or her self: a lone, nonconformist opinion that, in the end, proved to be the voice of reason and fair play. But we had to go through two acts to have that opinion vindicated. Today, many playwrights simply draw characters with signs hung around their necks (“Gay Basher,” “Southern Christian,” “Bigot”), and we’re supposed to take it from there. The problem is that there’s no place to take it, which partly reflects the absence of political discussion in this country — every side has demonized the opposition to the extent that the very presence of rival members on a school board or a baseball team is cause for boycotts and picket lines.

The case of Atlanta Braves relief pitcher John Rocker is particularly instructive. After denouncing virtually every band of the diversity rainbow in a Sports Illustrated interview, he was swiftly brought to ground by outraged monitors of public safety who demanded his firing. Instead, he was suspended without pay for two weeks and forced to visit a shrink; as of this writing, his owners are desperately trying to trade him.

Ironically, if he had sat with his hands folded on his lap like a good boy during his interview and told the world how much he enjoyed riding the subway and that some of his best friends were gay, black and foreign-born, no one would have paid any attention to his remarks. In fact, they probably would have been considered too bland to even print, and Rocker would have had to find another outlet for his reassuring views — perhaps he would have been forced to take up playwriting.

THE SONS OF LINCOLN | By LARRY GOLD At the LILLIAN THEATER, 1076 N. Lillian Way, Hollywood | Through May 14 BRIGHTON BEACH SCUMBAGS | BY STEVEN BERKOFF Black Irish Productions at the ELEPHANT SPACE, LILLIAN THEATER, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood | Through April 15 ____________________________________________

The 21st Annual L.A. Weekly Theater Awards (honoring work on stages of 99 seats or less) will be held on Monday, April 10, 7:30 p.m. (doors open at 6:30 p.m.), at the Los Angeles Theater Center, 514 S. Spring St., downtown, and includes a post-show reception catered by Mexicali and accompanied by Millhouse. Slated to perform are Tim Miller and the casts of White Trash Wins Lotto and Forbidden Broadway: Y2K L.A.! Also appearing: Barbara Beckley, Nathan Birnbaum, Julie Briggs, Culture Clash, Charles Duncombe, Tamar Fortgang, Ellen Geer, Mitchell Gossett, Lars Hansen, Sally Kirkland, Cleo King, Lee Lawlor, Shon LeBlanc, Alan Mandell, Alec Mapa, Frederique Michel, Adolfo Nodal, Katherine Noon, Lynn Redgrave, Rand Ryan, Avery Schreiber, Ron Sossi, John Spencer, Raul Clayton Staggs, Sasha Varchuk, Polly Warfield, Lee Wochner and Chay Yew. Financial support for the Playwriting Award generously provided by A.S.K. Theater Projects. The event is sold out. To be placed on a waiting list, call (323) 993-3693, on the condition that admittance to the theater cannot be guaranteed.

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