LOS ANGELES – Before the zany “The Exit Interview (An Existential Comedy)”gets underway per se its cast goes through the somewhat sidesplitting motions of delivering a series of announcements and disclaimers dressed and acting mostly like cheerleaders. Among them is the notification (or is it a warning?) that: “This play contains Brechtian alienation devices.” Despite the Buzzworks Theater Company’s best efforts to convince me otherwise, Bertolt Brecht is my favorite 20th-century playwright. So how could I not enjoy a show that explored – and/or mocked – the German dramatist and his Epic Theatre theories and techniques?
Brecht’s “Mother Courage”may dramatize the senseless carnage and mass murder of the Thirty Years’ War, but wordsmith William Missouri Downs’ plot – such as it is – tackles a topic that one suspects would give even the cynical Brecht pause: School shootings – and in a comedy, no less. (Hey, America may be falling behind the rest of the world in universal healthcare and education, income inequality and other vital indicators that trip off of Bernie Sanders’ socialist tongue, but when it comes to gun violence, by golly,we‘re still Number One! USA! USA!)
A masked gunman is shooting up the college campus where – after he has been let go from his job – Brecht scholar Dick Fig (Davey Johnson plays the academic Everyman who is being sent to Davey Jones’ locker and keeps insisting he be called “Richard”) is undergoing the eponymous “exit interview.” (The title may also be a sly reference to Jean-Paul Sartre and his “No Exit” play expressing existentialist philosophy.) These Q&As are the final parting gifts imparted to employees in, supposedly, an attempt to assess their time on the job before they (are allowed to) move on.
The wacky Eunice (Catie LeOrisa, whose English accent, it seems, actually makes sense because she is from Britain) administers the interview in a way that is totally skewed, blued and tattooed, intended to elicit specific responses. Eunice (sounds like eunuch) is a religious fanatic and it seems this character suggests Ashley Smith, the Atlanta woman held prisoner by a gun-toting desperado who supposedly won her freedom by reading Saddleback Church Pastor Rick Warren’s “The Purpose-Driven Life”to her captor in 2005. Eunice, too, is “illumined” by a theological self-help book and her fate is, shall we say, rather Brechtian.
So this is “Exit”‘sbarebones plot, but along the way this two-acter with eight actors features numerous non-sequiturs and madcap antics, lots of philosophical ruminations, and includes one cast member costumed, for some reason, like a rodent. It doesn’t all necessarily make sense, but then again, neither does life – although much of it is good fun. In particular the Buzzworkers seem to poke fun at Brecht’s notion of “Verfremdungseffekt” – the aforementioned estrangement or alienation effect.
The cast explains (although I’m not really sure that is the right word) in its inimitable way that Brecht was striving to distance audiences from assessing characters and plots solely on an emotional basis and to use logic and reason when evaluating a play. In Brecht and Kurt Weill’s 1930 opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny the protagonist Jimmy Mahoney goes broke and is tried – and executed! – at a U.S. boomtown for the high crime and misdemeanor of having no money in capitalist society. In the same vein, I guess Brecht “deserves” the death penalty for trying to get theatergoers to commit the heinous thought crime of thinking…. So shoot him!
In another of “Exit”‘sreferences to Brecht, renditions of Brecht and Weill’s most famous song, “The Threepenny Opera”‘s”Mack the Knife,” are sung (with rather un-Brechtian lyrics, I might add).
The performers’ sheer exuberance is infectious because members of the Buzzworks Theater Company seem to be having so much fun romping about on the stage and getting their ya yas out. I picked up on this fun-filled vibe when I arrived early at the Lounge Theatre and observed the actors getting ready in their dressing room: The cast that disrobes together stays together. (No, I do not belong to the NSA – said dressing room door was open.)
As Actor #3 Rich Hutchman was number one and epitomized this sensibility: He was enjoying himself so much onstage, incarnating a variety of wacky personas (including one that had him stripped down to a thong and another as a cockamamie clergyman) that his joy at the art of acting (and perhaps, dare we say, Mr. Hutchman, in showing off) was positively catchy. Hutchman, who has appeared in some top TV shows such as “Mad Men” and “Monk,” reminded me of Oliver Platt, an actor who positively revels in his profession. (Platt explicitly confesses loving acting in interviews, and this joy usually comes through in his screen performances.) To be sure, all the other Buzzworkers express this same enjoyment, but Hutchman was the first among equals, and watching them all joke about my hero Brecht, et al, made me a bit giddy. It was charming to see artistes who so delight in their art – rather than suffer for it.
I can’t cite each of the eight actors individually, but I’d be remiss if I did not also single out Wayne Wilderson for his wildly droll depiction of a smarmy “reporter” for FOX “News,” that network which airs the High Renaissance of aggressive imbecility. Ticket buyers are likely to recognize Wilderson from his many TV appearances on programs such as “How to Get Away with Murder”- as well as recognize the airhead “newsmen” he lampoons with a humorous harpoon.
Yuri Okahana’s two-level set in a confined space is put to effective use by director Sirena Irwin, who allows her able cast to sing that Brechtian siren song: For, when all is said and done, is “The Exit Interview” really what Brecht called a “Lehrstück” – a learning play?
Who knew school shootings could be so much gosh darn fun? If you want to get your Brecht on, and have a rip-roaring time, head on down to Hollywood’s Theatre Row for a good laugh – and an idea or two – as the Buzzworkers go for Brecht.
Buzzworks Theater Company presents “The Exit Interview (An Existential Comedy)” Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 2:00 pm through Nov. 15 at the Lounge Theatre 1, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood, CA 90038. For more info and reservations: (323) 960-7712; https://www.plays411.net/newsite/show/play_info.asp?show_id=4362
Photo: Gina Torrecilla (left), Wayne Wilderson, Rich Hutchman, Jocelyn O’Keefe.