nytheatre.com review by Eric Pliner
March 16, 2006
At first, it’s the oversized marching band in Clay McLeod Chapman’s The Pumpkin Pie Show: junta high that draws immediate attention. As soon as the doors to P.S. 122 open, audience members are greeted with a cacophony of drums and brass, not to mention gyrating gals in color guard uniforms and a hyper-enthusiastic cheerleading squad. The only hint that something from the raucous celebration is slightly amiss is a lone man (Paul Thureen), bound, gagged, and blindfolded, shivering against the back wall of the stage. The band works hard to maintain focus, and they succeed; still, that opening image is a powerful one, and the few equally intense moments scattered throughout junta high are when this otherwise sprawling piece functions best.
Set in a fictional high school, junta high is structured as a series of monologues by members of the junta community integrated with performances from the marching band, cheerleading squad, and color guard. Off the bat, it’s clear that this is no ordinary high school—Hannah Bos’s opening monologue, "suicide bomber," concerns a cheerleader who surprises a rival football player with more than the apocryphal class ring when he performs a particular sexual act. It’s a clever twist on a dirty joke, and Bos’s enthusiastic delivery—she suggests a cross between Sarah Jessica Parker and Cheri Oteri—makes it work. It’s also the piece that introduces the play’s central (and problematic) conceit—a small town’s manifestation of football-related aggression as a metaphor for war.
The monologues that follow tread similar ground: Thureen is a guidance counselor kidnapped by the school’s A/V club, Abe Goldfarb is a shy-guy-turned-raging-school-mascot, Chapman is the grand marshal of a bloody town parade. Their performances pale in comparison to those of their female counterparts, though: in addition to Bos, the delightful Hanna Cheek impeccably integrates over-the-top comedy with subtle and evocative horror. (Her tale of finding bodies in shallow graves under the school’s bleachers is most poignant when she describes how young the “football players” look.) And Ronica Reddick displays exquisite skill and talent that go far beyond what the material allows her in her role as a grieving parent.
The P.S. 122 space works nicely for junta high. A decrepit school (lines from the former basketball court are still visible on the theater’s wood floor) makes the perfect setting for Chapman’s controlled chaos. The un-credited costumes (presumably by the ensemble) are red, gold, and black, and their coordinated-but-shabby appearance complement the proceedings well.
The problem, really, is one of writing. junta high alternates between going too far (Chapman’s own monologue is painfully misplaced) and not far enough (Reddick is strangely presented as one of the cheerleaders, rather than the suburban PTA mom she portrays). While it seems reasonable enough that school culture represents an interesting and accessible metaphor for the horrors of war, the work unintentionally wavers between working this conceit and working its inverse: war as a metaphor for the horrors of adolescence. And although the cast’s high-energy performance seems driven by intended meaning, crying over fake death in a football game has the unintended effect of trivializing the tragedy of bloodshed, rather than making it real for the home team.