by Michael Bowen
Society seems to forget an icon from our youth; we pause to reminisce; we get a little sad. When our childhood heroes fade along with our long-lost hopes and dreams, we start grieving for ourselves.
Douglas Carter Beane's Music from a Sparkling Planet (at Interplayers through Feb. 14) presents us with three fun-loving guys who love fun just fine, but escapism even more. They'll do anything, in fact, to avoid the whole grief/sadness/having-to-face-reality thing. So they go in search of a local TV personality from their Philadelphia boyhoods, one Tamara Tomorrow (Annie Lareau) -- resplendent in a silver spacesuit that features not just plenty of cleavage but also the cutest little holster, with room for her ray gun and even her lipstick.
Beane's serious comedy is about disillusionment turning into hope. The young men's lives may be an eternity from what they expected, and Tamara's own career may have gone from high hopes to has-been, but she and her fans learn how to overcome disappointment -- though not without a cost.
As in the other Beane play produced in Spokane (As Bees in Honey Drown, at the Civic's Studio Theater back in 2001), the playwright strongly suggests that fame ain't all that it's cracked up to be, and that our cultural rage for fame -- giving anything to be on a reality show -- is really just another dead end.
Tamara -- emphasis on the second syllable, please, chiming with "Tomorrow" -- is the center of this show, and Lareau obliges with a versatile and funny performance. From sexy bombshell to dowdy matron, from giddy-drunk to steaming mad, Lareau invests the woman with all the shades of hopefulness and disappointment that the part requires.
Four men orbit around Tamara -- David Seitz as her TV producer back in the day, and Craig Dingle, David M. Royer and John Ulman as three of her fans, now ostensibly grown into adulthood (although the jury's still out). But they're really just satellites. If we're not convinced that Ms. Tomorrow was the sensation of yesteryear, this whole show falls apart.
Fortunately, Lareau is convincing whether she's demonstrating how well she can ad lib on camera, how tired she is of autograph hounds, or how quickly she can re-energize her optimism against all odds.
Among her supporting cast, Seitz has developed a brusque Philly speaking style that's just right for a man who's so businesslike that he often forgets how lonely he is.
Royer and Dingle tread close to the stereotypes of the gay man and the doofus, respectively, without quite going over the edge. Royer can imitate the fey witticisms of Carson on Queer Eye, but he also blends in dead-serious observations about both his buddies and himself. Dingle, meanwhile, chooses straight-up sincerity at one of the play's saddest moments, deepening his character's dumb-jock default mode. As the lawyer with relationship problems, Ulman steers furthest from on-the-nose choices. He ranges nicely from mania when he finally meets Tamara to despondency whenever he says something tactless.
Director Nike Imoru creates some haunting effects. For a scene in which Tamara recalls an episode of deep embarrassment from her past, the director breaks the stage barrier and plants a three-man chorus among the audience to make catcalls; it's as if we ourselves are participating as the lodestar begins to burn low, quite low.
Imoru has opted for three TV screens, which bring the past vividly into the present -- sometimes presenting slide shows, sometimes announcing labels for the episode of the moment. Like something out of Brecht, the scenic labels cast us as judges rather than participants.
Perhaps best of all, Imoru has insisted on precise timing for the cast's delivery of Beane's frequently overlapping dialogue, which neatly intertwines past and present.
From the quiet in the theater, you can tell that it resonates with audience members when the characters talk about how disappointing life can be, how disheartening it has become.
Beane evidently took his title from an album by Juan Garcia Esquivel, the kitschy Mexican bandleader of the '50s and '60s whose music, according to one wag, "makes you feel like you should be eating a TV dinner off a TV tray while watching My Favorite Martian."
One of Esquivel's other albums was called "Space Age Bachelor Pad Music" -- a quaint notion, sort of like the idea of a grandfatherly man being asked knock-knock jokes by a moose and then, at the punch line, being pelted with a cascade of ping-pong balls.
By coincidence, you see, this Interplayers production about the rise and fall of reemergence of a beloved kids' TV show host opened the day after the death of Bob Keeshan, Captain Kangaroo himself.
Few of us will ever be celebrities beloved by generations of television viewers. But if we act our best, we can at least be heroes to our kids, our loved ones, our best friends.
We can grow up, face our responsibilities and see the Captain and Tamara for what they are: not "sub-lebrities" to be asked for autographs, but reminders of the things worth striving for.
The Music of Tamara sparkles with the promise of, oh, the places we will go.
Publication date: 1/29/04