Lite As Air Few spectacles are closer to the American heart than that of the professional famous person. Celebrity-worship is our culture's vernacular faith, and (as the sociologist C. Wright Mills once said) our star system is the inevitable result of making a fetish out of competition. We venerate people who have done remarkable things, to be sure, but we don't let the scarcity of such people deprive us of the pleasure of venerating. Perpetually inventing stars out of thin air (and thereby degrading heroism) gives us the illusion that gloves-off competition really is a stimulus to community, not just to rapacity and isolation?that the few lucky winners in our winner-take-all game really can bring us meaningfully together, and perhaps reflect starlight on us, if we just seize the precious opportunities to take proper notice of them.
I remember feeling inchoate disgust, even as a child, at this sort of manufactured general reverence that presumed to include me?at "applause" lights, laugh tracks, the empty-headed, face-lifted losers posing as winners on tv shows like Truth or Consequences and Hollywood Squares. The show that most clarified my feelings on this score recently, though, was live?Sandra Bernhard's I'm Still Here Damn It!, which ran at the Booth Theater on Broadway last year.
Not yet face-lifted (I assume), the notoriously angry Bernhard?her legit acting career uninspiring since The King of Comedy?is a talented singer, as demonstrated in I'm Still Here and her previous solo show Without You I'm Nothing. Unfortunately, she lacks the original sparkle, or perhaps the dedication, to become a big recording star despite her unperfect looks (read: big nose), like Barbra, and she has consequently taken aim at an ersatz stardom of spite. Using her perceived professional rejection as comic material, she now presents herself as a sneering, stand-up critic of the system that purportedly hurt her?an utterly false and pathetic pose that tries to pass off crypto-gayness as cutting-edge feminism and squanders her fine intelligence on bitchy little backbiting gossip about celebrities whose acquaintance she's obviously proud of.
When I first saw the pretentious, self-satisfied tude in the press releases for Barry Humphries' Dame Edna: The Royal Tour, now playing at the Booth Theater?"It is well known that Dame Edna is arguably the most popular and gifted woman in the world today..."?the pang of nausea I felt was familiar. Here, it seemed, was an Australian Bernhard in drag trading on the same pseudo-intellectual, trend-conscious spite-comedy conceived as vengeance for the slights of youth, serving up the same sad, self-cannibalizing triviality posing as savvy culture critique.
I was most cheered to find out that Dame Edna isn't disgusting. There are Bernhardish elements in her, and I'm not convinced she's as profound as John Lahr makes her out to be in his 242-page 1992 book Dame Edna Everage and the Rise of Western Civilisation (which I picked up and read with pleasure after the show), but I was unexpectedly drawn in by her poise and the extent to which she relies on skillful negotiation of dangerously unpredictable audience interaction. Name-dropping is added here as spice, almost as an afterthought. Edna is, thankfully, a precise and polished clown act that?no matter what you may think of her jokes or lightweight politics?convinces you that Humphries is actually famous for a reason.
Dame Edna is the most prominent of Humphries' many alter egos. She has been a pop-culture icon in Britain and Australia since the 1950s while remaining relatively obscure in the United States. (A previous show, Housewife/Superstar, closed quickly Off-Broadway in 1977.) To help the New York audience get hip fast, Dame Edna: The Royal Tour begins with video clips dating back almost 40 years that first show the dowdy housewife character he originally invented to ridicule the dullness and ignorance that nearly suffocated him as a child in Melbourne. Then the clips progress to the garishly glamorous, utterly self-absorbed matron he currently plays, with her double chin, butterfly glasses and lavender bouffant hair, holding court in an astonishing array of prestigious and exclusive places while rubbing elbows with the likes of Robin Williams, Sean Connery, Roseanne Arnold and Charlton Heston.
Meanwhile, an announcer prepares the audience for Edna's special brand of mock-infantilization by offering absurdly basic explanations of what to expect during the evening: "Dame Edna attracts a nice type of person, whereas other Broadway shows may not... Actors are sometimes obliged to perform when they can't obtain work in television." These statements imply that anyone who would come see Edna is probably a hopeless couch potato, which provides a hint of the double-edged nature of her aggressive charm. At once thoroughly malicious and unfailingly gracious, she's such a perfect hostess that most people don't care that they're being insulted.
There is no story line to the show (for this reason it's "perfect for senior citizens," she says, "no plot you can lose"). She simply enters onto the elegant stage?an ornate, curving stairway beside a white piano with a huge flower arrangement, set into receding cutouts of giant, bejeweled crowns?and visits with the audience for two and a quarter hours. "I feel bonded to you," she says, "I don't think of you as an audience. More like a focus group." Occasionally she sings, dances like a football player and tells stories, but mostly she asks questions of selected spectators and riffs scathingly on their responses. The sharpest barbs are followed with statements like, "I mean that in a loving, caring way." At one point she adds, "I was born with a priceless gift: the ability to laugh at the misfortunes of others."
Thus, the spectators in the balcony are "paupers" who are ever so nicely told not to expect more eye contact from the star than their ticket price justifies. Those in box seats who speak back to her are dubbed "parakeets," those who don't "mutes," and both groups are abused mercilessly from then on. The night I attended, a woman in the orchestra said she lived in a rowhouse in Astoria and was then asked: "Are you sure you're in the right seat?" Another woman, nicely dressed, was invited up to the stage with her friend for a meal (a real one) and greeted with: "Napkin, I think. We don't want any more stains on that frock." The "guest" never smiled again, to the audience's immeasurable amusement.
Some jokes obviously inserted for New York did leave me wondering whether Edna's political edge is sharper when she appears in London or Melbourne. "Who came by taxi?" she asks, for instance, calling for a show of hands: "Lovely, you must know the Arabic for 'Booth.'" The Oriental sequin dress she wears in the second act is "a tribute to Woody Allen's mother-in-law. [Pause for effect.] Think about that for a moment." Occasionally, in other words, one senses that she thinks her political incorrectness is more dangerous and hard-hitting than it is. Moreover, there's conspicuous evasiveness in the fact that all her live targets are women or the elderly. (Perhaps, it occurred to me, Humphries fears that swipes at the vanity of younger men might provoke unfunny aggression, rooted in homophobia, and this might be dangerous for Edna, or might force her to respond directly, possibly threatening her mass appeal. In any case, says Lahr, Humphries isn't gay.)
There are enough jokes that do hit home, though. Edna's good friend the Queen, for instance, keeps getting the theater's name wrong: "the Oswald Theater...the Hinkley Theater...the Squeaky Fromme." And, anyway, what ultimately holds one's attention is less the content than the meticulous delivery?the low falsetto voice with its occasional dulcet belches, the priceless twisted-mouth grimaces that accompany every punchline, the leggy stances, extravagantly clumsy hopping dances and horrisonant crooning that turn all her songs into fantastically odd spectacles of maladroit virtuosity. Dame Edna, in the end, is a deserving celebrity who is unthinkable apart from the tradition of empty celebrity?a picture of pure competitiveness dressed up as loving mother, who allows us to laugh off our rapacious cynicism or stare it in the berouged face, depending on our inclinations.
An Experiment with an Air Pump by Shelagh Stephenson Manhattan Theater Club, 131 W. 55th St. (betw. 6th & 7th Aves.), 581-1212, through Dec. 12. Artists who have not yet found their own voices or styles often devote great energy to copying the voices and styles of their heroes from the past. Less often?since it's more likely to be held against them?they copy from living, contemporary heroes, convinced that authentic sympathy of spirit makes all questions of originality foolish and irrelevant.
British playwright Shelagh Stephenson seems to me precisely this sort of artist. The Memory of Water, her first play, produced by Manhattan Theater Club last year, was basically a feeble copy of Beth Henley: siblings coming together for their mother's funeral and revisiting old dysfunctions and tensions. Now An Experiment with an Air Pump, her next play, could be called Tom Stoppard-lite: the situation of Arcadia (alternating scenes set in two eras, with cross-cast actors, in which both famous and unknown people around the turn of the 19th century provide clues to a mystery set in the present day) dumbed down to serve as a vehicle for much simpler questions about science and morality.
Air Pump is not an awful play. In fact, the production directed by Doug Hughes is crisp and sweet, sustained by a seven-member cast whose only weak link (Ana Reeder) is about to be replaced. Moreover, the work itself is engaging and even contains a few passages of lovely writing that suggest Stephenson might be worth following after all. The primary challenge for a derivative writer, I suppose, is to choose the right heroes.