Better Lucky Than Smart
nytheatre.com review by Hannah Gold
August 28, 2010
The spirit of America has always been relentlessly reimagined as evidenced by the daily news cycle, political pundits, and ceaseless policy debate over the dinner table. One day the core of our nation is a strong family, the next it is industry and creativity, but what is truly at the heart of this country? What playwright Jonathan Kravetz presents to us does not necessarily answer this question, however, he does portray, in his gnawing satire Better Lucky than Smart, a stupid, greedy side of America, not often played out by the media. This "dark side" of America is, however, lightened by the comedic bend of the show, directed by Joseph Beuerlein, which transforms some of the typical American characters (the loving middle class family, the unscrupulous sexpot, and the ruthless mobster among them), into figures of cartoonish proportion.
This being a satire, the President of the United States (Bart Shatto) is, you guessed it, a bit more lucky than smart—buffoon, in fact, is more like it. Mr. President is infatuated with his mistress Priscilla (played by the leggy, pop-eyed Sarah Doudna), who unfortunately is kidnapped and held for ransom by...well actually we don't know who is behind this, but rest assured that he or she is evil (and lucky!). The petulant president pines for his captured squeeze and deals with his inner pain by playing with toy soldiers and threatening members of his staff with light sabers. Oh and did I mention he has a wife? Annette Michelle Sanders does an excellent job of portraying a stupid, whiny, and emotionally unhinged First Lady, who provides much comic relief in the second half of the show (of course she is also a bit of a two-dimensional character, but much must be sacrificed for the sake of high-pitched satire).
Then we have the Johnsons. Far removed from Capitol Hill resides the typical American family just, you know, living the dream. Henry (Jay Leibowitz) fixes up antique violins to make them look like Stradivarii, then sells them at extortionist prices, and his adoring wife Jane (Valerie Renee Hager) constantly worries about money and tries to keep her husband's dreams in check. They also have a quick-mouthed kid who can do a killer impression of a man shooting a machine gun? Did I mention he is really cute? Martin Alexander Perez plays the rambunctious Tyler who dreams big just like his scheming father, and he certainly pulls it off with flair. One day the family is told that the typically humorless F.B.I. needs them to do their duty as Americans by dropping off a briefcase (ransom money to save the poor mistress) at some undisclosed location. From here on the dream becomes utterly warped as the Johnsons travel quickly down an all-American rabbit hole.
The Johnsons also become involved with the mob. The "mob" consists of just two guys, and their boss whom we never see (although we assume there are additional mobsters out there). Billy (Joseph Nicholas Masi) is a self-proclaimed handsome man who proudly sports liberal amounts of hair product and is of indistinguishable character. His partner, Duke, is sort of like Lenny from Of Mice and Men only he has a girlfriend. Also, his girlfriend is the President's mistress, and, as luck would have it, is the mob's main squeeze as well. Duke and Billy are set on blackmailing the president about the affair. But their best laid plans unfortunately take a turn for the worse when they discover that Priscilla is dead and only later find out that she has actually been kidnapped (which is not much better). In fact, Priscilla is in the excellent hands of two very capable guards, including the sweet-talking Stella, played by Natasha A. Williams.
In the end I would have loved to love this show since I enjoy a good-ole-fashioned American satire as much as the next person, but I was yearning to see the show discuss some more substantial hot topics. This just seemed like a blanket middle finger at American greed that did not actually address any relevant or current issues. For example, when the president and first lady are played as such twits I was curious to know why. Is the playwright poking fun at Bush, Obama, politicians in general? Of course the main aim of the show is not necessarily to play theatrical therapist and work out all of America's many psychological problems, but rather to purely entertain. Perhaps Kravetz, unlike many of our politicians, does not have a hidden agenda and simply wishes to score some laughs at the expense of some well-worn American stereotypes. If this is the case, then I would love to see the production go even further in that direction, and really commit to being a comedy. As it is, the show is caught in a rather uncomfortable middle where it is neither hilariously funny nor substantial enough to be taken completely seriously. Definitely a good effort, with a solid cast, but a clearer message would have done wonderful things for this production.