In its thirty-six year history, the Women’s Project Theater has produced some first rate plays and playwrights. Since I am a woman writer, I wholeheartedly support its mission to give women a voice and a home. I do want to love their work. But if I am being honest, I am disappointed by the selection of The Most Deserving for the New York stage. The Women’s Project Theater has a golden permanent space at New York City Center Stage II that other theater companies would envy. Couldn’t the team give us theater with more meat on the bones?
Why do New Yorkers need to see this play? I’ve got nothing against plays about Kansas. (William Inge gave us the wonderfulPicnic) The Most Deserving is about a small town Kansas arts council fighting over the selection of a local artist, an unrepresented American voice, deserving of grant money. Sounds like heady and important subject matter for lovers of the arts. But it is a piece of fluff with unwitty humor that belongs in a small town, if the citizens like tasteless blue jokes.
The council of five is made up of pushy Jolene Atkinson (Veanne Cox) and her horny husband, the town newspaperman Ted Atkinson (Daniel Pearce). Ted asserts cultural superiority because he grew up in England and visited the world’s greatest museums. There is the well-heeled widow Edie Kelch (Kristin Griffith) who donated a decapitated portrait of her late husband to the NRA because they do appreciate violence. We have wannabe artist Dwayne Dean (Adam Lefevre), not the sharpest tool in the shed. The fifth member is young, enthusiastic Liz Chang (Jennifer Lim) originally from St. Louis and holds a Masters in Art History. You wonder what the hell is she doing with these boneheads?
The play opens on their bickering over candidates, a quilt maker and the frontrunner whose daddy is rich. Council member Dwayne Dean paints pictures of vice-presidents with self-laudatory originality. He nominates himself by playing the one-sixteenth Sioux card to qualify as a minority. When that doesn’t work, he claims he is one-sixteenth gay. In a very unsexy, out-of-place scene, single minded Jolene is in a Fredericks of Hollywood get-up to seduce husband Ted into throwing his vote her way. But Ted has the hots for Liz Chang.
Liz is pushing for disabled Everett Whiteside (Ray Anthony Thomas), aka “the trash man” who makes angels and John the Baptist in a coffin out of garbage. Never mind that Whiteside is paranoid schizophrenic and thinks that Uncle Sam is in his butt-hole. He represents outsider art. The arts council obliges Liz with a visit to the nutcase Whiteside who rambles on about his work and materials – toilet paper, cardboard, tampons, and glue. Dwayne asks him what his work says about the Bible, and why does the skeleton have a big dick? Edie’s artistic sensibility explains that the largeness of the cock is a symbol of the omnipotence of God’s creative power.
Whiteside owes back taxes to Uncle Sam, yet he tells the council he would spend the grant money on a heater at Walmart. He finishes his pitch with “the Jews are trying to run the whole shebang.” That pointless, tired line doesn’t come out funny. Jolene and Edie can’t consider Whiteside for the grant because he is not only anti-Semitic but anti-Masonic as well. Edie Kelch reveals that she was born a Goldberg from a short line of Kansas Jews.
Ah, how the ends of this tale are tied up. The guy with the rich daddy wins the grant. Edie quits the council. Jolene has on her to-do list to rekindle the flame with Ted. Liz will write a book. Whiteside loses but will continue scavenging for garbage. Dwayne cuts his ear with a knife to be like Van Gogh. The actors chug along and push too hard to rise above the material.
The Most Deserving
By Catherine Trieschmann; directed by Shelley Butler; sets by David M. Barber; costumes by Donald Sanders; lighting by Traci Klainer Polimeni; sound by Leon Rothenberg; fight choreography by J. David Brimmer; associate artistic director, Kate Pines; casting by Alaine Alldaffer, CSA and Lisa Donadio; production supervisor, Production Core; associate producer, Jane Jung; production stage manager, Jess Johnston; press representative, The Bruce Cohen Group, Ltd; director of marketing, Deane Brosnan. Presented by Women’s Project Theater, Julie Crosby, Artistic Director. At New York City Center Stage II, 131 West 55th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues. CityTix at (212) 581-1212 or www.NYCityCenter.org. Through May 4. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes, no intermission.
WITH: Veanne Cox (Jolene Atkinson), Kristin Griffith (Edie Kelch), Adam Lefevre (Dwayne Dean), Jennifer Lim (Liz Chang), Daniel Pearce (Ted Atkinson), Ray Anthony Thomas (Everett Whiteside).