It's always Armageddon for somebody. Don Becker's dark new comedy, Kurt Cobain Was Right, puts a new spin on modern end-of-the-world themes harking all the way back to the Theater of the Absurd and cinematic spinoffs like Dr. Strangelove. The Lida Project's outrageous production will offend, stimulate and maybe shake up a good portion of its audience; like Stanley Kubrick's own vision of the End, it does fly over the top and back again several times. But, hey--"apocalypse now" always was an over-the-top concept.
Becker's bizarre, abrasive play may seem retro at first glance. Ever since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when the world heaved a collective sigh of relief, a certain complacency has set in about the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Becker reminds us that any powerful fruitcake could still blow us all to kingdom come. And the religious right might just give him the excuse he needs: Somebody might get the idea that global mass murder could usher in the Second Coming.
In Becker's play, violent, vengeful and newly elected president Ford Landers is clearly a Reagan knockoff--a dim bulb who happens to have a knack for manipulating the media. And Becker's parodistic approach borrows so much from real life that his comic extremes seem plausible even as he pushes the envelope beyond realism.
As Ford Landers plans to end democracy and make himself king, his Machiavellian missus tells him what to do, what to pray for and when to act. "Snookums," as he calls her, parodies Nancy Reagan, of course, but Becker dresses her in leather, makes her a dominatrix with a whip, and uses her to excoriate the sexual depravity of Washington's elite. Director Dan Hiester (who also plays President-elect Landers) holds nothing back: Mrs. Landers's leather scene is exceedingly crude. In fact, it's so outlandish that it somehow manages not to be embarrassing.
The first part of the play works so well because it takes political parody to the limit. Hiester brings an ingenious vitality to his character, though his presence is so powerful that he often overwhelms the other actors. Mary Gay Sullivan is gifted and classy, but she fails to persuade us of her dominance as Mrs. Landers until she appears in leather. Then her outfit is, well, distracting.
The second half of the show is more problematic. The writing is more coherent, but the directorial choices are sometimes too wild. A more naturalistic approach might have struck more deeply at the issues and moved the audience more effectively. Hiester returns as Charles Horse, a madman with a piece of metal lodged in his brain, the result of an accident with an exploding Pinto. His loving family stands by him with touching devotion, but each person suffers from his or her own mental infirmities. Charles has religious visions that never come true. He begs God for answers, fails to understand how his suffering can serve Him, and wonders why his visions never seem to pay off.
Hiester is sweetly vulnerable as Charles, and Nils Ivan Swanson gives a lively, layered performance as Charles's sanest offspring, his gay son Blake. But neither Cody Alexander as Charles's daffy wife nor Holly Wasinger as his Generation X daughter can hold the stage effectively while Hiester and Swanson are on it.
Becker does something daring in this play. A Christian himself, he takes on the Christian right for what he believes to be its self-righteous and ultimately un-Christian agenda, and he does it with extravagant profanity. Intelligent, complex and frightening, Kurt Cobain Was Right dives head-first into a familiar polemic: that bad religion breeds atrocities. But unlike many social critics, Becker isn't entirely without religious hope. When the Horse family members watch the End and plaintively affirm that God hates them, gentle Charlie corrects them. For Becker, the problem isn't God, it's humankind.
Kurt Cobain Was Right, through February 2 at the Acoma City Center, 1080 Acoma Street, 293-9193.
Get the Arts and Theater Newsletter
Weekly information keeping you in the know when it comes to the art and theater scene. Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events.