By Bryan Willis.
Directed by Jerry Manning
Theatre Schmeater
1500 Summit Avenue, Seattle WA 98122 / (206) 324-5801

Reviewed by Jerry Kraft

Is there anything flatter or more lifeless than a nice little idea blown-up beyond recognition, and then run-over by attempted significance it never meant to have? "John Lennon's Gargoyle" is a piece of theatrical road-kill (remember the urban legend about the guy who had a friend who picked up a dead animal on the road, threw it in the backseat and then it came to life and bit him? This is like that, except it never comes to life).

Playwright Bryan Willis tries to graft several familiar urban legends onto the storyline of "Candide", presumably to show that only details have changed since the time of Voltaire. The problem is that the legends are stale and only marginally amusing, he has none of the wit, intelligence or irony of Voltaire, and the people in his story are, without exception, uninteresting, unlikable and so blatantly one-dimensional that you know everything you need to (or want to) by the time they've delivered their third line. Director Jerry Manning (a noted dramaturg) only underscores these deficiencies by emphasizing the remoteness and coldness in the characters, and allowing Frank (Craig Zagurski) to only feel unhappy, disappointed, misled or deprived. Really entertaining emotions.

Mr. Zagurski tries awfully hard, but the character of Frank is impossible. Unlike Candide, who begins his journey with pure-hearted, naive innocence, Frank shows us in the first scene that he's just a clueless schmuck. He's unsatisfied with his wife (after 18 months), so he toys with infidelity at a singles bar. There he meets Lucy, a cold and calculating seductress who lures him (with the usual irresistible temptation of a single kiss), to her apartment, where she steals his kidneys (sound familiar?), ruins his marriage, blackmails him with a pregnancy and utterly destroys his life. Skipping the question of why his brain doesn't resume functioning between the time she gives him her address and the time he shows up there, we simply begin following the bad fortune of this morally bankrupt, shallow, ethically vacuous victim of his own inadequacy. He is our hero.

The rest of the cast have so much less going for them. Dressed in white (perfect for so colorless an ensemble) they have been directed to move stylishly, reveal minimal involvement, and to sustain a sense of withholding key information, presumably to reinforce the conspiratorial nature of these events. Great. Inexpressive people not telling us anything about why dull events are happening. Aimee Bruneau, as Lucy, and Sarah Malkin as the prodigal daughter, do good work, but against all odds.

The women in this play are all scheming bitches, heartless, venal and ruthless. Thank heavens the male lead is so stupid he can't function without them, or we could have all gone home early. At least he has the love of his beautiful, faithful daughter. Oops. She's scheming, too. As for Elvis selling used cars in the desert, the alien-abducted hitchhiker who robs him, the psychiatrist, Dr. Pangloss (Hey! I get it!), the evil-spirited lesbian bartender, or the betrayed wife who blackmails him with her kidney in exchange for their rent-controlled apartment, they sure made this guy's life miserable.

The gargoyle of the title is a small souvenir that Frank steals from the site of Lennon's murder because, well, Lucy tells him to. It brings him bad luck. In the first scene, when the characters hear the news of Lennon's murder, Lucy is shocked that Frank doesn't really care. Then the whole idea is dropped except for Lennon songs (obvious choices) used between scenes. The playwright wants to use Lennon to say something about his cultural significance to a generation, but like many other elements of Willis's meaningful intention, it ends up just another discarded item in a pop culture yard sale.

That's only one glaring example of how inept the playwriting is here. He borrows Voltaire's "wherein" titles to introduce each scene, eliminating the need to write a coherent narrative line. The dialogue is clumsy, hackneyed or obvious. The arc of the play is from stupid mistake to inane resolution. For a play based on trickery and conspiracy, there wasn't a single surprise. Where Candide journeys the world, Frank travels from New York to the Southwest. Voltaire uses Candide's journey to illustrate that purity can only survive the corruptions of the world by restricting itself to a very narrow area, i.e. tending one's own garden. The lesson for Frank is that everyone lies, has ulterior motives and is ultimately out to screw you. And that small ugly statues have very bad karma.

Everything about this play has the smudged fingerprints of a promising idea, given early encouragement, and then revised and improved into oblivion. In the best of all possible worlds, plays like this remain skits, do short runs in fringe festivals, and are soon forgotten. Frank says, as his guiding philosophy, that everything happens for a reason. Everything about this play, however, argues against that.

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