If Reefer Madness were only a parody of a 1936 anti-marijuana film, it would hardly be noteworthy. But what makes this "After Hours" offering at American Stage an important milestone for Bay area theater is that it's also a send-up of theater itself — of adults donning disguise and pretending to be who they're not, all in the service of some ponderous truth. When T. Scott Wooten crudely and repeatedly turns on portable footlights before assuming the character of Dr. Alfred Carroll, when Jan Ray plays the sinister "Boss" by sporting a crooked, badly applied moustache, what's being challenged is our expectation of slick, professional illusion.
After Jarry and Pirandello, Brecht and Ionesco, you'd think that such a challenge would be a common one on our stages. But instead, realism reigns: Whether it's The Chosen at Stageworks, History of the Devil at Jobsite or Gem of the Ocean on the American Stage mainstage, our directors and actors want us to suspend our disbelief and see characters, not actors, acting "truthfully," not artificially. Not the case with Reefer Madness: It's deliberately crude, sloppy and overacted — meaning it's modernistically self-conscious, which, in 2008, it has every right to be. The play may be brief at 45 minutes, and it may not go far enough in its experimentation, but it has integrity and pluck. And it gives me hope that the "After Hours" series will bring us the type of avant-garde theater that this area has too long been missing.
The show begins with Dr. Carroll announcing his intention: to show us so shocking a true story of dope-induced mayhem that we will never again doubt the danger weed poses to society. And then the evening's four actors — Wooten and Ray, along with Michael Titone and Katie Castonguay — play out the saga of Bill Harper (Titone) and Mary Lane (Ray), two innocent kids who fall victim to drug pusher Jack Coleman (Wooten) and his depraved, sexually avid sister Blanche (Castonguay). It's a story of insidious drug fiends who offer free dope to unsuspecting college students in order to get them hooked and then make a mint when the young addicts need more and more of their product.
It's only a short time before pot-addled Bill is accusing himself of the murder of his sweetheart Mary, and then nearly everyone's dispatched by a drug supplier "Boss" whose modus operandi is to leave no witnesses. Will Bill ever recover from his terrible descent into the hell of marijuana use? Can America defend itself from the scourge of unfettered weed consumption? And what about pusher Jack: Is it any real surprise when he's judged "hopelessly and incurably insane — a condition caused by cannabis-sativa to which he was addicted?"
As I said earlier, the real inspiration of the play is its intentional subversion of the theatrical rulebook. So the very talented Titone plays Bill Harper with such excessive, nervous innocence (all the while wearing a bad wig) that we can't for a moment take him seriously, just as we never can believe in hyper-naïve Ray/Mary or ultra-available sexpot Castonguay/Blanche. Marijuana smoke is repeatedly spewed out by a clunky onstage smoke machine, and some centrally important guns come off like undependable props — which, of course, they are. Titone is also very effective as the caricature of a police detective, and Wooten, as Bill's father, wears a thingamajig that's supposed to, but doesn't, make him look bald.
There's no set for the play — it unfolds on the same stage that holds A Tuna Christmas — and the uncredited costumes range from the sharply iconical (Titone as the police detective) to the weirdly meaningless (Castonguay as Blanche). This is theater-with-a-concept, and director Wooten's to be applauded for seeing his idea through to every level of the action.
The play's not nearly as funny as it could be, but it's always on message: Watch as we dethrone all your high expectations. With an intention like this, even the most unsatisfying acting — Wooten as Dr. Carroll — seems thematically appropriate.
So here's a tentative three cheers to American Stage for its "After Hours" series. The Tom Lehrer cabaret, The Vagina Monologues and now Reefer Madness — this could be a trend. Late at night, some daring fare.
I see a pattern. And I'm impressed.