California straddles a volatile fault line. Still, thousands blithely flock there every day. Stormy weather can flip a 10-story ship like a paper plate, yet families pack pleasure cruises. And every time I board a plane, I think about that Hawaiian jet whose roof came apart at 30,000 feet, instantly sucking out a flight attendant. The odds may be more against us driving to QuikTrip, but it’s the big messes that scare us.
If anybody has earned the right to mine comedy from such tragedy, it’s Late Night Theatre, where Disaster ’74 opened last weekend. Writer Ron Megee takes as his blueprint a troika of classic disaster epics from the ’70s: The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake and Airport ’75. The genre had such lucrative mass appeal that even respected Actor’s Studio alumni such as Paul Newman and Gene Hackman couldn’t resist its narcotic tug.
Certainly any one of the three could have been given the Late Night salute on its own; to do all three might provoke a valid “Why?” Always one to answer that question with “Why not?,” Megee takes them all on and more, throwing in a game show linking the plots. Although the concept inspires (and depends upon) as many laughs as groans, the execution results in a show that’s comedic but also a tad chaotic.
A curtain that reads “Dare You Take the Challenge?” rises on a multitiered set designed by Jon Young that will serve as a ship, a plane and the city of Los Angeles. Each actor is introduced as a game show contestant who proceeds to play three roles, depending on which movie is being parodied. Megee, for example, plays Steward, Chief Stewardess (modeled on Airport ’75‘s cross-eyed, histrionic Karen Black) and Girl Having Affair with Married Man, a saucy temptress with a hard-to-place accent.
At an almost willy-nilly pace, the show hops from movie to movie. The transitions are fairly confusing, though, helped a bit by red lights above the stage directing attention to Sea, Air or Land. Following the troubled paths of the doomed crafts proves a challenge of its own. My puzzled party and I decided on an alternate route, relishing instead the dopey idiosyncrasies of the imperiled individuals. Most fun are Gary Campbell’s Kidney Transplant Girl (whose IV must be dripping pathos), Philip blue owl Hooser’s self-deprecating yet heroic Large Jewish Woman and Corrie Van Ausdal’s Afro Girl, a white chick with a snappish attitude who wields her pick like a machete.
Of the three movies, I’m most familiar with The Poseidon Adventure. The 1972 picture managed to squeeze several Oscar nominations from a voting bloc that must have been high on Dramamine. It’s a movie whose awfulness makes it worthy of repeated viewings, which makes it a prime candidate for Megee and company’s love and bullets. Among the movie’s familiar moments that Late Night manages to pull off are the upside-down Christmas tree and the disposable character’s fatal plunge into the ornate glass ceiling that, post-capsize, has become a floor.
The movie’s most memorable scene, of course, is that in which Shelley Winters’ overweight character sacrifices her life for the good of her fellow passengers and Large Jewish Women everywhere. There’s not an actor in the city who could do her justice except Hooser. To say he plunges into the role is an understatement. Stripped down to a form-fitting slip, he valiantly submerges himself into a big aquarium at stage right and saves the day, if not the show. It’s almost moving when, at death’s door, his character passes on the old swimming medal she happens to be wearing.
The cast also includes Spencer Brown (whose resemblance to Poseidon‘s Stella Stevens is uncanny), Darryl W. Jones, Ryan Brinkerhoff and Ryan Gove. And returning after his impressive Late Night debut in Killings at Kamp Titikaka is Cory Dowman, whose charge with the company is to assume all the testosterone-heavy roles, such as Jet Pilot. Dowman is young but has a gift for playing good guys a little in love with themselves.
Throughout the show, one finds plenty of Late Night signatures: the punny vulgarities (a final T added to TWA), the quick yet wholly intentional flashes of male packages beneath perky miniskirts, and impressive special effects. When Earthquake played Kansas City’s Midland Theater (when it was still a movie house), the studio shelled out big bucks to equip theaters with Sensurround — basically, big speakers with enough reverb to make the seats rumble. For its own tremors, Late Night approximates the technology with a technique that a theater might have used in the early 20th century: A few tugs on some string cause pieces of Styrofoam to rain down on the unsuspecting audience.
But all of these ingredients, as tasty as they are, don’t quite jell. The show is undeniably ambitious, but it reads as more humorous than hilarious. There might have been richer rewards if Late Night had picked one of the three movies rather than trying to pack a carry-on as if it were a steamer trunk.