The Academy is there to celebrate anodyne mediocrity,” we are told about the Oscars in the opening moments of Ben Elton’s ”Popcorn,” and, assuming that much is true, someone should film this play right away.
Adapted from Elton’s bestselling novel, the play — the actor-writer’s third to reach the West End — is a dreary roundtable discussion dressed up as a ripped-from-the-headlines satire. For all the lip service paid to hipness, this is easily the dullest evening in town.
English observers, it must be said, may think otherwise: ”Popcorn” isn’t the first fraudulent piece of work to score points on this side of the Atlantic by playing to extant prejudices about life on the other side. Touching upon such topics as trial by TV, copycat violence, and the moral responsibility of the artist, ”Popcorn” serves up a menu of issues far more substantial than its title might suggest.
The problem, though, is hardly that the play partly exploits the very concerns it raises. Far more distasteful is the self-importance of writing that wants to occupy the moral high ground, when all ”Popcorn” really manages is to coat the audience in the preachy equivalent of movie theater butter.
”Half of America is living in hell for the entertainment of the other half,” bleats Scout (Dena Davis). She and her tattooed, muscled boyfriend Wayne (Patrick O’Kane) are two psychos out of ”Natural Born Killers,” who, fresh from their most recent rampage (Scout still has blood and bits of brain in her hair), burst into the Beverly Hills home of Stone/Tarantino-style filmmaker Bruce Delamitri (Danny Webb) the morning after his controversial ”Ordinary Americans” has brought him an Oscar for best direction. ”You are the wind beneath my wings, and I flap for you,” goes Bruce’s acceptance speech, in one of the play’s few flat-out hilarious moments.
The timing couldn’t be worse for Bruce. For one thing, he’s busy seducing Playboy model Brooke Daniels (Dena Dodds), his Oscar ceremony pick-up. For another, he is embroiled in a nasty divorce settlement with Farrah (Debora Weston), one of those Hollywood spouses who has more time for her hypnotherapist than she ever had for her husband.
In between leaving a trail of carnage across America, Wayne and Scout want a public (i.e., televised) statement of accountability from Bruce. ”You make killin’ cool,” says Wayne, pointing out that 57 people get shot in ”Ordinary Americans.”
Director Laurence Boswell can’t do much to modulate the screamathon that the play becomes: Elton works by bludgeoning an audience into submission.
Nor can anyone but the playwright be blamed for peculiarities both small (Wayne knows the word ‘aphrodisiac’ but not ‘hemophiliac’) and large: From what we glean of it, ”Ordinary Americans” sounds no more likely to be an Oscar-bearer for Bruce than ”The People vs. Larry Flynt” was for Milos Forman.
The unvarying volume notwithstanding, some of the actors maintain their dignity, especially American newcomer Dodds, as a sexpot desperate to be taken seriously. Davis makes something rather sweet out of Scout’s insistence on propriety: Why should her mass murderess status allow her to be rude on the telephone?
As the white-trash Wayne, the talented O’Kane must bear the bulk of Elton’s crackpot moralizing, not least when he invokes Henry Kissinger, ”who killed a lot more people than we ever will.” At such moments, it is difficult to know what’s worse in ”Popcorn” — the satire or the sanctimony.