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Down South

Omigod, a farce about cunnilingus! How racy, how daring, how ... dull. Playwright Doug Field uses the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis as a catalyst for the sexual revolution set off by a hysteria-gripped housewife in Erie, Pa. The concept wasn't hilarious enough to sustain the one-note joke without additional infusions of textual wit and directorial ingenuity.

With:
Jennifer Barnes - Alice Vaughn Bob Barnes - Anthony De Santis Cheryl Undulato - Erin McLaughlin Eddie Undulato - Dean Fortunato Sue Stevens - Audrey Rapoport Stephen Stevens - David Bicha

Omigod, a farce about cunnilingus! How racy, how daring, how … dull. Playwright Doug Field makes his Off Broadway debut with a textbook example of the “Eureka!” play — a bright idea dumbly executed. The smart idea was to use the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis as a catalyst for the impromptu sexual revolution set off by a hysteria-gripped housewife in Erie, Pa. The dumb part was thinking that the concept was hilarious enough to sustain the one-note joke without additional infusions of textual wit and directorial ingenuity.

John McDermott’s whimsical set — a suburban dream house done up in beach-ball colors — gleefully sends up the 1950s mood of cheery optimism that bounced America out of its postwar funk and into the eternal promise of the early Kennedy era. But all that restrictive happiness comes at the price of deadly social conformity and a boring sex life, a cautionary message telegraphed with catty cruelty by Paule Doss’ cinched-up, buttoned-down costumes and Patricia Peek’s lacquered hairstyles. No wonder that a bubbly housefrau named Jennifer Barnes (Alice Vaughn) goes to pieces when the threat of nuclear annihilation forces her to examine her paper-doll life from a new perspective.

Vaughn never loses the maniacal gleam in her eye as she takes this horny housewife through the stages of her character-building breakdown, from panicky hysteria to erotic excitation. Flouncing through her survival chores like a demented doll, she stocks up on canned goods (which she color-codes), studies Spanish (“If we survive the radiation, I’d like to be able to converse”) and demands oral sex from her husband, Bob.

Playwright makes an effort to shove the plot into higher gear by activating the old sitcom device of involving the Barnes’ neighbors in their domestic affairs. The comedy does, indeed, pick up some traction when Bob, a model of uptight complacency and repressed homosexuality, talks a friend’s lusty wife into teaching Jennifer how to masturbate. But by the time all the neighbors have bought into Jennifer’s sexual liberation and the inevitable orgy scene rolls around, the show is already dead on its feet.

There are good reasons why the actors can’t get us to laugh at these strained antics. (This one has no sense of comic timing; that one’s milking the laugh; and nobody except David Bicha, as the guy next-door who comes dancing out of the closet on winged feet, knows how to move!) But it would take the Ridiculous Theatrical Co. in full drag to find yuks in Rick Sparks’ feverish direction, which mistakes cartoonishness (the stuff of comicbooks) for surrealism (the stuff of comic nightmare).

Since only Jennifer feels the liberating effects of political panic, hers is the only behavior that has motive and urgency. Lacking that edge of comic desperation, everyone else’s wild sexual abandon just seems silly.

Down South

Rattlestick Theater; 99 seats; $40 top

Production: A Rattlestick Prods. presentation of a play in one act by Doug Field. Directed by Rick Sparks.

Creative: Set, John McDermott; costumes, Paule Doss; lighting, Ed McCarthy; production stage manager, Allison Deutsch. Opened June 28, 2001. Reviewed Aug. 6. Running time: 1 HOUR, 25 MIN.

Cast: Jennifer Barnes - Alice Vaughn Bob Barnes - Anthony De Santis Cheryl Undulato - Erin McLaughlin Eddie Undulato - Dean Fortunato Sue Stevens - Audrey Rapoport Stephen Stevens - David Bicha

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