Just Shoot Me

 

Here’s some fresh inspiration from Mitch Albom, the famous feel-good author of Tuesdays With Morrie and The Five People You Meet in Heaven: “A nigger to you is just somebody stupid.”

This insight comes from Lenny, the lone black character in Albom’s calamitous new play, a comedy whose title — à la the George Foreman grill — comes goofily name-branded: Mitch Albom’s Duck Hunter Shoots Angel (as opposed to Thoreau’s).

Lenny (Damron Russell Armstrong) is schooling Sandy (Sean Grennan), a reporter for a Weekly World News-type tabloid who has been dispatched to an Alabama swamp to investigate a claim made by two duck hunters that they — yes — bagged an angel. A fussy New Yorker, Sandy takes a dim view of the South, assuming that it’s packed with racist galoots. He even lived there once, we discover, writing for legit newspapers, but he headed north as soon as it became clear the woman he loved didn’t know what “above the fold” meant.

All this (and more) leads up to Lenny’s outburst, a watershed moment in the struggle between regular folks and the intellectuals talk radio encourages regular folks to fear: suddenly, blue state smugness is the moral equivalent of racism.

Good thing Morrie’s not around to hear this.

Godawful but not uninteresting, Duck Hunter spends half of the show reminding us that simple people see truths that book-learning types can’t, all the while exploiting southern stereotypes that wouldn’t fly on Hee Haw. Albom’s hunters are broad as the barns they were born in, worrying about their “peters,” pronouncing disappeared “dissappearded” and asking — when they hear that CNN wants to talk to them — “The government’s involved?” For a long stretch, they mistake Lenny and Sandy for representatives from heaven, a misunderstanding fueled, presumably, by between-scene lobotomies. I felt embarrassed for the actors, several of whom are among this town’s best.

Two of them almost get this turkey airborne. Scott Cordes and Joseph Albright earn honest laughs as the idjit hunters. Cordes, sporting muttonchops and an expression of glazed consternation, looks like Tim Robbins starring in The Neil Young Story; he’s wonderfully funny, whether pratfalling about or wincing at his brother’s idiocy, giving the material a comic kick even when called upon to do the hacky squeal-like-a-pig bit from Deliverance. Joseph Albright also brings real smarts to playing dumb, timing his lines so that we laugh even if the jokes stink. Those few occasions when the jokes don’t, we roar gratefully.

Unless we’re asleep. During the dry opening scenes, I noted three snorers in three separate rows. Two more and I’d have had my first Theater Bingo.

Almost everyone else seems ruined by the material. Grennan’s Sandy is flat and irritable. (If I had to make jokes about Donald Trump’s hair every night, I’d look put-upon, too.) As Lenny, wide-eyed Armstrong always looks like he just swallowed a bug. He treats each line with stiff intensity, so that “Then what happened?” in a casual conversation explodes just like his panicked “What’d we hit?” following a car accident. Making matters worse is that, in their several chatty scenes together, Grennan and Armstrong don’t seem to be listening to each other at all or even inhabiting the same play. While Grennan mutters something wry, Armstrong picks an expression, fervently holds it, and then, once cued, belts out his response as though a number’s coming on. Throughout the show, the actors rush as if they’re racing to be the first offstage. We get punch lines before we’ve even processed the setups, and we’re plowed into busy new scenes before we’ve made sense of whatever was going on beforehand. What I can’t fathom is that so much should come undone in a show directed by Missy Koonce, the force behind those great Bar Natasha cabarets and last winter’s Bonanza.

Not that there’s much she could have done with Albom’s script. Both half-baked and overcooked, it attempts a dozen tricky things and achieves none of them. Two structural conceits baffle throughout. First, a man dressed up as an alligator haunts Sandy throughout the show. I feel no obligation to make sense of this because Albom himself never seems to bother. Almost as odd are the arty-in-a-bad-way moments when a booming voice from someplace offstage interrogates Sandy, asking tough questions about what he does and doesn’t believe and his trouble with women. We wonder: Is this God? Sandy’s conscience? The answer: some dude from the bank, approving Sandy’s loan.

At least, I think that’s the answer. With all its swamp fog and Wal-Mart metaphysics, Duck Hunter is damn hard to follow, somehow telegraphing its surprises well before they arrived but still muddling the basic who, what, when and where, especially in the scrambled closing scenes, where everything changes at least three times.

Talking it over afterward, we were uncertain whether there was an angel, whether it was shot, whether Sandy has answers to any of this, and whether actually thinking about this play is like trying to suck on cotton candy.

Categories: A&E, Stage