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ART's Road to Nirvana relies too heavily on the bizarre


Written by Arthur Kopit.

Directed by Michael Bloom.

Starring Debora Jean Culpin, Mark Zeisler, Candy Buckley, Thomas Derrah, and Ray Bokhour.

Presented by the American Repertory Theatre.

At the Hasty Pudding Theatre through April 28.


OPENING WITH A VERY UP-BEAT and convincing recording of the fictional popular music artist, Nirvana (Debora Jean Culpin), the American Repertory Theatre's production of Arthur Kopit's Road to Nirvana made a favorable initial impression. The opening scene introduced the characters of Al (Mark Zeisler) and Lou (Candy Buckley) in clich'ed but believable roles as cynical, nouveau riche businessman and dumb, brunette girlfriend. Character developments, however, were never given any opportunity to progress, and in the end none was brought to a satisfactory conclusion. This might have been acceptable if the situation into which the characters were being thrown had been funny, rather than simply unusual.

The play bobbed along happily on a series of gags and one-liners as it exposed the criminality of each of the characters. Sadly, the obscenity of the play cannot be justified on the grounds of adding realism to the unusual world which Kopit has created. Perhaps anticipating the charge of sexism due to the shallowness of the character of Lou, or perhaps simply trying to redress the balance for the exposed breasts in the first act, Kopit included some male exposure in the second act. Providing the same level of entertainment without the obscenity is what the world of TV soap operas is all about.

The character of Jerry, a film producer like Al, is an easily-lead, naive, and charming character, wonderfully portrayed by Thomas Derrah. Even exciting our sympathy at times, Jerry easily had the greatest variety of reactions in the play. From his entrance and the superficial, boisterous exchange of platitudes with Al, Jerry remained an interesting and watchable character. Derrah's expressions marvelously reflected his emotions, from timidity to the greed which provided the theme for the play.

It was also with Jerry that we got one of the few glimpses in the play of convincing human feelings, when he read the emotions from Nirvana's face. This made a nice contrast to the fraughtness and farce of the rest of the play. The final, contemplative moments of the play would have been more appropriate if the dramatist had developed the relationship between Al and Lou a little more fully.

One scene involving Jerry and Al raised hopes for a parody of the bitter competition in the film industry. But by the time the final (and perhaps only) plot twist was revealed, the audience was numbed by the crudeness, and the opportunity to present a trenchant satire of the greed-driven, dog-eat-dog world of the film business had been lost.

Sitting at the center of both the crudeness and the greed was the character of <>

Al, who reduced everything to monetary terms. Zeisler, as Al, captured the image of the successful but simple-minded criminal with an uncompromising nature. The breaking up of his diction with think-gaps was well observed and nicely created the impression that Al could not cope with thinking about whole sentences at once. However, as Al's character was never developed but rather relied on the cynical-boy-from-the-Bronx image, little variation from this acting pattern was made. Consequently the character of Al had little stage attraction.

As the strange rock star, Nirvana, Debora Jean Culpin did an adequate job, including a pleasant childishness in her manner. The drug addiction perhaps limited this marvelous opportunity to portray Nirvana in the flamboyant, controversial, movie star mold.

Scott Bradley's set for the first act, with its long vertical corrugations upstage and tall, thin, sun-shade supports, was suggestive of the 1920s and Art Deco, an irrelevant effect for a play set in the 1980s. <>

The cumbersome and unusual decor of the second act, suggested well the sort of personal empire of, say, William Randolph Hearst.

The evening was on the whole entertaining, but the humor relied too heavily on the bizarre and shocking for a whole-hearted recommendation to be made.