Grant recipient and workshop baby David Adjmi is really keen to show you what it was like to be gay in 1978. A living nightmare is what it was, which the scribe attempts to re-create in “3C,” a surreal comedy about a young guy living the swinging straight life in Santa Monica, but working up the courage to declare his love for his best friend. Helmer Jackson Gay, also not unknown among the non-profits, gives Adjmi what he seems to want — an absurdist theatrical style with overblown characters and a grotesque comic sensibility. Nightmarish it is. Funny it’s not.
Tyler Micoleau’s high-beams lighting design sets the tone as much as the pounding disco music that gets everyone all worked up. Nobody could survive under these white-hot lights except for sitcom characters, which pretty much describes the cartoon figures who come and go in apartment 3C, channeling the fun-loving idiots from “Three’s Company.”
The renters on record are Linda, a riff on the sassy Joyce DeWitt character played here by Hannah Cabell, and Connie, Anna Chlumsky’s version of Suzanne Somers’ sexy airhead. After a wild party sending off their last roommate, the girls think they may have found her replacement when a naked guy comes out of the kitchen.
Brad, the John Ritter-inspired goofus played by Jake Silbermann, seems too conventionally straight to get away with the plot pretense that he’s gay. But when his best friend, Terry, shows up — in the person of Eddie Cahill, sporting John Travolta locks and electricity-sparking jumpsuits and giving an insanely manic perf — we can see the possibilities.
Everyone looks ridiculous in Oana Botez’s period-specific costumes, but the one we’re supposed to keep our eye on is Brad, a sensitive youth who recoils from the other characters’ headlights. Unfortunately, Adjmi has not written a single clever thought or amusing quirk for his hero, and Gay has limited the thesp to a single expression of horror.
Because they’re viewed from Brad’s perspective, the other characters have more freedom to be outrageous. In his eyes, the two girls talk brainless nonsense at warp speed. The divine Terry unknowingly drives him crazy with his sexy teasing. Mrs. Wicker, the nutty landlady played by Kate Buddeke, is every sensitive gay boy’s terrifying vision of a menopausal mother figure.
Bill Buell should get hazard pay for taking on Mr. Wicker, the nutty landlady’s nuttier husband, who embodies the straight world’s worst attitudes toward gay men — at least, as presented in popular shows of that late ’70s period. Trouper that he is, Buell rolls his eyes, smacks his lips, and gamely delivers every cruel joke in the book.
The initial idea for the show isn’t all that bad, but Adjmi’s social satire is a one-note joke lacking the wit — or maybe the anger — to move his idea beyond its rough draft. And yet, even before Piece by Piece, Rising Phoenix, and Rattlestick put their collective hand to this project, “3C” was workshopped by Clubbed Thumb, Playwrights Horizons and New Dramatists. What on earth were they all doing?