A correction was made to this review on Dec. 3, 2004.
The author of monster-selling books “Tuesdays With Morrie” and “The Five People You Meet in Heaven,” sports journalist and savvy scribe Mitch Albom is a bankable brand in Michigan, where he peddles a lucrative multimedia blend of commentary, comedy and the kind of gentle, homespun, self-actualizing wisdom that goes over bigger than ever these days in the Midwest. Albom is like Oprah with a beer gut.
Gotham critics and blue-state sophisticates would have a great time savaging Albom’s latest dramatic effort — a cheerfully dumb, sentimental, crude and emotionally manipulative comedy with a pop-psych sting in the tale and a facility for pressing more tear-jerking buttons than the charter members of the Hallmark Hall of Fame.
“Duck Hunter Shoots Angel” is so shamelessly populist, it makes the more erudite “Morrie” look like “Angels in America” by comparison. But when it comes to appealing to huge swaths of America, it would be a big, big mistake to underestimate either this author or “Duck Hunter,” which actually is far funnier, sweeter and shrewder than one initially is inclined to admit.
Thanks to his sports bona fides and a sense of humor that recalls nothing so much as a Budweiser commercial, Albom makes it safe for blue-collar males to go to the theater. This is one play that even the NRA could endorse. Like Joe DiPietro (“I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”), Albom knows how to snag an audience. He makes people laugh at easy things — the South, racial prejudice, bosses, newspapers, rednecks in the woods — and then packs ’em off home with an upbeat reformist message about realigning one’s priorities toward the personal and thus becoming a better person.
And if that were not enough, he’s also on the angel bandwagon here — expressing a loosey-goosey spirituality that’s just enough to suggest moral weight without seeming overtly religious. Given that this is a play also able to feature a bare-butted newspaper publisher in mid-bathroom strain, that’s no easy feat.
The beyond-preposterous plot here involves a tabloid hack chasing a pair of Alabama hunters who claim to have bagged a celestial being, wings and all. The hack, you quickly guess, is destined to learn a thing or two from the shot angel (they’re tough to kill) about his own sorry, self-hating ass. By the end of the night, he’s figured out a way to redeem himself with the girl he dumped for some stupid writing career. Boy, wouldn’t we all like to go back and change that kind of decision.
Still, the legit establishment usually fails to understand this kind of play, just as mainstream publishers don’t get the appeal of huge-selling books such as “A Purpose-Driven Life.” But money can be a great mind-opener. And in a city where long runs of straight plays are (in recent years) virtually unheard of, this Nederlander commercial transfer of the Purple Rose Theater hit is opening plenty of minds.As long as no one is dumb enough to bring this thing near New York critics, it likely will thrive in any number of hinterland outposts, especially in summer. And it shows no sign of closing its open-ended run in Detroit.
Using mainly a Chi-based cast (with some locals attached), director Guy Sanders brings a sure comic hand and deft timing, turning out a broad, low-budget production that’s nonetheless consistently chuckle-worthy and sufficiently involving to hold attention.
There are some whopping contrivances that need fixing. The hack (nicely played by James Krag) narrates his experiences to a disembodied, “Chorus Line”-style voice for no discernable reason. Much is made of the dude’s walking out on the Woman (the charming Jenny McKnight), but it’s never explained why she doesn’t just come with him to the new job. And things get very weird when the Angel first gets its (her?) wings clipped. And there are so many anti-South lines, this thing will never fly below Memphis.
But there’s lots of funny slapstick from the likes of Joe Albright as a redneck with a goofy voice and a twist.
In short, “Duck Hunter” works — “big-time” as duck hunter Dick Cheney might say — because it’s sufficiently audacious to surprise and sufficiently familiar to comfort. Much the same could be said of “Morrie” and the rest of Albom’s work.