Joe Popp's Maxwell is a mixed bag, a rock 'n' roll musical that never entirely rises above its own and its performers' limitations to become a satisfying experience. Yes, Popp's script is impressive, literate and often witty; but the show's music is seldom memorable, few of the performers' voices are of notable quality in any case, and the Jobsite Theater production itself, though highly energetic, is generally graceless. It's good to see Popp's work again, and to be reminded of his considerable talent. But he is not well served by the raucously unconvincing production currently at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.
The story Maxwell tells is relatively simple. It begins with Joseph Maxwell's birth and his first word: "correlation." As a schoolboy with an IQ of 249, he wins every award imaginable and is sent off to Cambridge U to study under physicist Stephen Hawking. While there, he strives to make a machine that will cure all ills and do all of humankind's work: "I am going to take hard work and hypocrisy out of the equation. No one will have to toil for pennies. No one will have to be in a wheelchair with squeaky wheels. No one will have to kill strangers."
Finally, the self-reproducing machine, designed to look like Maxwell's dead father, is up and running: "The human race is now free to do what it wants to without the toiling and labor that crushes most men's spirits." One of its first accomplishments is the curing of Hawking's disability; Maxwell's machines then go on to cure the sick, relieve third world countries of poverty and spread global peace. But humans begin to find that without work and adversity, they lose all sense of purpose and value. Finally, someone decides to destroy all the Maxwell machines. ...
It's a story with flaws. Maybe humans do need work of some sort in order to feel useful; but it's not at all credible that, as Popp seems to suggest, they need, and would choose, poverty and disease also. ("It seems his disability was the very thing that made him strive for higher achievements," says a character about Hawking.) Further, Popp's narrative doesn't allow for characters — rock musician/playwrights, for example — who simply wouldn't use the Maxwell machine, who would continue at their trade or art in spite of the machine's availability. Of course it's possible to ignore these logical defects and just enjoy the show's sound and fury; but in a more successful act of theater, such willful ignorance wouldn't be necessary.
Maxwell's music is another problem. I'm a fan of Popp's music in Whirligig and elsewhere, but I had trouble enjoying the deafening mix of punk, heavy metal and other styles that the musician composed for this outing. Certainly part of the problem is that few of the show's performers are gifted singers. The exceptions are Ami Sallee Corley — a wonderful voice I'd be willing to hear all evening — and, at times, Nevada Caldwell. The other vocalists are adequate, but hardly of musical theater quality.
This type of performance — adequate but not first-rate — is also the case where much of the show's acting is concerned. Best of all are Corley as Maxwell's deep-feeling mother Louisa, and Jason Evans as Maxwell's mischievous friend Oscar Moretti. But David Jenkins as Maxwell lacks credibility as a scientist/nerd; Chris Holcom as Hawking is likable where he should be believable; and Michael McGreevy as Maxwell's father looks young enough to be his older brother. (The Jobsite tendency to cast young actors almost exclusively is a potential shortcoming in any production.) Another problem is Brian Smallheer's dismally drab set, just a few walls and doorways out of the budget bin at Home Depot. Joy Platt's costumes, though, are intelligently chosen; and R.M. Lawrence's direction is, if nothing else, kinetic.
To wrap up: flawed though it may be, I still don't think we're seeing Maxwell at its best here.
And as a Joe Popp fan, I think that's a pity.
Throw This One Back to Sea. I don't understand how a theater can schedule respectable plays like The Laramie Project, Crimes of the Heart and The Importance of Being Earnest, and then turn around and produce a dog like Greater Tuna. I mean, sure, I can believe that Anna Brennen and the folks over at Stageworks want some variety in a season. But Greater Tuna, written by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard, is just a time-waster, an unfunny, utterly predictable set of sketches that's too mindless for Saturday Night Live and too juvenile for Mad Magazine. This is the sort of theater that makes you want to go to the movies.
The only innovative feature of Greater Tuna is its requirement that two actors — in this case Stephen Cabral and Michael Staczar — play all 20 Tuna residents, male and female, from dog-poisoner Pearl Burras to hard-ass Sheriff Givens, from juvenile delinquent Stanley Bumiller to general busybody Didi Snavely. Cabral and Staczar show an impressive ability to caricature a wide range of personalities, and director/costume designer Joe McFate comes up with appropriately witty clothes for all 20 oddballs.
But no amount of good acting or clever design can redeem this trivial, insipid script. The stupid jokes start early, when we hear about a prize-winning school essay called "Human Rights, Why Bother?" Then we're told that a community theater production of My Fair Lady is going to use sets from South Pacific and that the Greater Tuna Humane Society is concerned for the fate of ducks: "It's tough being a duck." And so on and so forth until one regrets coming to the theater at all. Yes, there are a few moments when the play contains some useful satire on small-town small-mindedness. But these few needles are easily lost in a haystack of sorry jokes. I mean, what can you say about an "Agent Orange" anecdote that ends, "there wasn't a one of 'em turned orange"?
The other elements of the production aren't terribly satisfactory either. McFate's direction is simplistic, turning the actors toward the audience again and again with little regard for variety or texture. And Michael Du Mouchel's bland set consists of little more than a tired-looking backdrop and various tables and chairs strewn around a dusty-looking bare stage. A good play can turn the emptiest of stages into an intense, variegated world, but this script and this set just undermine each other from first moment to last.
In sum: Do yourself a favor and miss Greater Tuna.
You have better things to do with your time.
Contact Mark E. Leib at [email protected] or call 813-248-8888, ext. 305.