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Ashley Montana Goes Ashore in the Caicos... or What Am I Doing Here?
by Rob Kendt

©2005 Dixie Sheridan
Bebe Neuwirth & Jeffrey DeMunn in Ashley Montana Goes Ashore in the Caicos
In a famous post-Sept. 11 essay in Time magazine, essayist Roger Rosenblatt hopefully predicted that the World Trade Center cataclysm, in its immediacy and enormity, would signal "the end of the age of irony." He wasn't the only premature Jeremiah: In The Guys, Anne Nelson's maudlin memorial to the New York firefighters who perished in the attack, she pronounced "the end of the postmodern era."

After the fatted frivolity of the Clinton era, in other words, it was time for America to grow up. Time to wipe off that self-regarding smirk and acknowledge that not everything is a joke or a brand name; some things deserve sincere reverence and enmity.

Oops, we did irony again. (Flash cards should suffice: Paris Hilton, wardrobe malfunction, The Daily Show.) In the theatrical equivalent of throwing up his hands, Rosenblatt now has a new semi-satirical offering at the Flea Theater, directed by Jim Simpson, who commissioned and premiered The Guys in the same space back in the fall of 2001. Rosenblatt's title, Ashley Montana Goes Ashore in the Caicos, quotes the breezy cover line of Sports Illustrated's 1991 swimsuit issue, while his subtitle, Or What Am I Doing Here?, suggests Rosenblatt's faint despair that, 14 years and two Gulf Wars later, American culture seems happier than ever to sate its damaged brain cells with celebrity marriages, late-night infomercials, cheery morning talk shows, empty-suited polticians.

Wait a second--morning talk shows? Infomercials? Rosenblatt's satirical targets here don't feel particularly fresh, and even material that name-checks current affairs--ex-FEMA chairman Michael Brown singing the blues in a New Orleans dive, for instance--rouses a mere grin of recognition. A love song to former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft doesn't have a funny or pointed line in it.

What it all has is wordplay, from groaner puns to dorky rhymes, and Simpson's over-qualified cast mostly gives them the right zing and rim-shot wink. "There was that song title you could not recall... And then it came to you. The song was 'Memories.'" Or, "We were all on the same page. It was crowded."

In one rapid-fire scene that handily hits its mark, a group of reporters is drilled on news clichés: "Outside what should we think?" asks one. "The box!" "So far outside as to push what?" "The envelope!"

Indeed, at his best, Rosenblatt teases more than punchlines from this verbal foolery, gleefully hoisting linguistic absurdities on their own petard. The whirlwind closing sequence, the evening's high point, miraculously spins that swimsuit cover headline into both a shaggy-dog absurdist narrative and an exhilarating, whip-smart time capsule of our queasy new century. If most of the show feels like staged New Yorker cartoons--clever but staid, reassuringly old hat--this conclusion plays like a really fine, quick-cut animated short.

Story continues below


The cast moves freely over the carpeted--yes, carpeted--floor, backed by percussionist Christopher Lipton. As a kind of Rosenblatt stand-in, the owlish, engaging Jeffrey DeMunn ranges easily from sunny glee to rattled bitterness, delivering the evening's baldly serious monologues--mini-essays, really--with infectiously offhanded fervor. James Waterston makes an effective lunkhead and loosey-goosey physical comedian, though he's better at giving straight lines an ironic spin than at making funny ones funny.

©2005 Dixie Sheridan
Jenn Harris & Bebe Neuwirth in Ashley Montana Goes Ashore in the Caicos
There's no such problem with Jenn Harris, a comic powerhouse who brings utter conviction to even the smallest asides and gives every characterization surprise and shape. She looks like she's game for anything. So does Bebe Neuwirth, who makes up for what she lacks in range with the distinctive gifts she alone seems to posses: that unflappable poise, that darkly glimmering glamour, that disarmingly adenoidal voice.

Rosenblatt's sub-subtitle for the show is "almost a play," which has the sound of a quietly shrugging excuse for what follows. This turns out to be well-advised, since a good half of what's onstage here isn't really ready for primetime, despite the production's polish (Brian Aldous contributes a few high-gloss lighting effects). But there's admirable purpose behind the playfulness. In one monologue, DeMunn's character recalls writers who wrote despite long odds--a paralyzed magazine editor, doomed Jews in the Warsaw ghetto--and concludes, "They had to tell a story, which is why you are here and I am here."

This affirmative blandishment may be a comedown from Rosenblatt's Olympian pronouncement of 2001. But it signals a salutary recognition: that taking life seriously and laughing at death need not be mutually exclusive. If culture is like a campfire where we gather to talk and sing and joke, there's plenty of room in the story circle for both the sermons and the satires. It's all right to have a little irony in the fire.

Ashley Montana Goes Ashore in the Caicos... or What Am I Doing Here?
By Roger Rosenblatt
Directed by Jim Simpson
The Flea Theater

 
Print This Story / Send the Story to a Friend / 10/20/2005 3:38:00 PM

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