What makes one play fascinating and another tedious?
Try this: Imagine the theater as a device for delivering information. The types of data that it conveys are visual (actors' bodies and faces, sets, costumes, props); aural (language and, in some cases, music); emotional (the feelings experienced by the characters or evoked by their situations) and intellectual (the ideas spoken by the characters or suggested by the plot but left unspoken). The most interesting plays, then, are the ones that deliver new information every few moments, while the boring ones are those that get stuck on very little info and ask us — for two hours or perhaps 20 minutes — to absorb next to nothing more. Similarly, the best actors are the ones who constantly show us different aspects of their characters, who reward our scrutiny with a dependable stream of insights.
If you want to test this idea, consider a play that, visually speaking at least, would appear to be a yawner: Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. After all, this is a drama in which a mere four characters do little but talk to each other in a living room for three full acts. So why is it so riveting? Constant flow of information. Every few minutes we learn more that we didn't already know about George and Martha, Nick and Honey, and every few minutes the unstable relationship of the four characters morphs into something that it wasn't minutes earlier.
Almost all satisfying drama has this shape: Every few moments we go further (new subject matter) or deeper (new info on existing subject matter). By the end of the evening, we've taken quite a journey.
I offer these comments by way of explaining why a play I've just seen — the new musical Don't Hug Me, by Phil and Paul Olson, produced by Salerno Theatre Company in Gulfport — is so very uninteresting. The problem's not that it's "popular" (hey, I love West Side Story), not that it's too much like a sitcom (nothing wrong with Seinfeld), not that its characters are silly or shallow or cartoonish (some cartoons, from Peanuts to Doonesbury, are delightful).
The problem is information — not enough of it in two hours. As we watch bar owners Gunner and Clara Johnson disagree over whether to stay in Minnesota or move to Florida, as we watch blonde Bernice worry over her engagement to chauvinist Kanute, as we witness the instant attraction of Bernice to salesman Aarvid, we feel: Hey, good set of problems with which to start us on our transit. But then a half hour passes and no transit occurs. Then an hour. An hour and a half. Now we're so desperate for new data, we're actually looking forward to a running joke that on each occurrence names a further inspiration (Elvis, Tito Puente, Peter Paul and Mary) for the songs of a certain jukebox hero named Sven Jorgensen.
A character finally does something new — signs a contract he's been considering — and we feel like parched wretches who've just been granted a thimbleful of water. One character throws another out — something unprecedented! something different! — and we feel as grateful as Oliver Twist being offered a lump of gruel. But these moments are few, and by the end of the show we're hungrily anticipating the traffic on 22nd Avenue N. — by comparison, a kaleidoscope of stimulation.
We only wanted information. Was it too much to ask?
Let me tell you the plot, which, as I said, is promising enough. Gunner and Clara run a failing bar in Minnesota (lovingly designed by Michael Stramiello — this is one element that shines). But Gunner has lost all taste for the Northern winters, and Clara's about had it with their sexless, unromantic marriage. Another relationship on the rocks is waitress Bernice's with insensitive Kanute; she has agreed to marry this oaf because there are no other available men, but even so she's restive and worried about her future.
Into this emotionally barren landscape comes karaoke machine salesman Aarvid Gisselssen, a nice guy who's attracted to Bernice and who claims (not very convincingly) that karaoke can put romance back in a relationship. Will an eveningful of middling Sven Jorgensen songs (actually written by the Olsons) put the spark back for these troubled couples? Will Bernice run off with Aarvid? Will Gunner and Clara sell their bar? What surprises lie in store for us in the two hours we've committed to?
Almost none — alas, the information that does come to us is so faint and predictable, it hardly registers. As for the songs by the Olsons, they don't register much either. They're pleasant, nicely tuneful, but decades old in musical inspiration and not much more interesting lyrically.
At least the acting is good. Joe Conboy and Scott Greenberg are particularly convincing as Gunner and Aarvid, and the other members of the cast — Carolyne Weber as Clara, Bonnie Smith as Bernice, and Michael Mathews as Kanute — turn in solid, likable work. Still, none of these actors has a spectacular singing voice (what a fine singer does with a tune is always new information), and after a while, we're so exasperated with the unchanging emotional landscape (Gunner's impatience with the winters, Clara's impatience with her marriage, etc.) that even the most skillful performances begin to lose their luster.
Of course, it's not the actors' fault, nor is it the result of Stramiello's tidy work as director. The fault is in the script, in the songs and the lyrics. Data failure, big time. And no, the script doesn't resemble a cross between Fargo and The Music Man (as the advertisement says). That film and that musical are geysers compared to the trickle that is Don't Hug Me. 76 Trombones is 75 more than the Olsons have mustered for their pageant.
One last point about theater-as-information: It's also possible to have too much. That's why a play like Shakespeare's busy, hard-to-follow Pericles is seldom produced; a glut can be just as troublesome as a dearth. That goes for theater criticism too.
So, for this week, I'm out of here.