nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
September 14, 2006
It took me a little time to warm up to Fizz, Rogelio Martinez's "totally fictionalized story of America's most successful blunder": the introduction of New Coke in 1985. I was enjoying myself all along—the dialogue is witty, the production design is meticulous, the acting ensemble zips from part to part and costume to costume with gusto. But for a long time, I just couldn't quite figure out why, from the perspective of 20 years later, I was supposed to care about the "cola wars" of the 1980s between the Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo. This story seemed to be awfully thin as a starting point for a play that seemed to have larger aspirations.
That was before the play reminded me that Peter Jennings interrupted regular television programming with a news brief when, only a few weeks later, Coca-Cola brought back "Classic Coke." In 1985, the collective American "we" did care—we cared a lot—about a small change in the flavor of a carbonated beverage, and Martinez wants us to think about why—and what that says about America, for good or for ill.
Now, this could easily descend into either a piece of '80s nostalgia or a wink-wink satire of how foolish we Americans can be—and certainly, both those elements do creep into the play at times. But both those tendencies are held in check by the point of view: that of Roberto Goizueta, a Cuban immigrant who was the CEO of the Coca-Cola Company from 1980 until his death in 1997. The play is framed by a speech he gives to a group of immigrants who are about to be naturalized, at an immigration center in Dayton. In fact, the set (by Marsha Ginsberg) is a scrupulously detailed reconstruction of a low-budget government office circa 1987, with the audience seated in the position of the about-to-become-citizens that Goizueta addresses.
Up until the cola wars, Goizueta's American story had been one of smashing success—starting as a junior chemist in a Coca-Cola plant in his native Cuba, Goizueta had risen to the very top. He'd presided over the launch of Diet Coke, which industry insiders scoffed at, but which had proved extremely successful. But in the mid-'80s, Pepsi was gaining ground rapidly. Goizueta, a scientist whose background was in chemistry, believed that people actually purchased beverages on the basis of taste, so the obvious solution, if people were buying less Coke, was to make Coke taste better.
In an array of flashbacks that occasionally slip over into fantasy sequences, the play charts the dizzying spiral of the several weeks in between the launch of New Coke (a media event that Goizueta flubs in both the play and in real life) and the surprise announcement that old Coke will be back on the shelves. In that time (in the play, anyway), Goizueta commences affairs with two married women (Trixie, an unhappily married Southern belle who threatens to kill him because New Coke has ruined her secret family recipe for peach cobbler, and Nancy, a cocaine-sniffing Rockette), developed a bit of a drug habit himself, had a revelatory experience in a supermarket (hilariously choreographed to the "Waltz of the Flowers") and been held at gunpoint by a cadre of Pepsi executives wearing Ronald Reagan masks. If you think this sounds a little bit like a slapstick comedy or a Three Stooges routine, you wouldn't be too far off, especially in the scenes involving the Rockette, the Southern belle, or the cadre of Pepsi executives, all of whom often veer a little too far toward caricature.
But in the midst of all this, Martinez is able to subtly investigate some larger questions: What are history and culture in America? Can an immigrant ever be truly acculturated? What does it mean to become American? How do Americans think about their national identity, and how is that bound up with the kind of consumer culture exemplified by the '80s?
The ensemble of nimble and versatile actors (five of the seven play multiple roles, as many as eight apiece, often dashing out one door as one character to return moments later, fully re-costumed, as another) work at breakneck pace without ever losing specificity as they shift from character to character. Among the ensemble, my favorite fleeting characters were Mary Rasmussen as Trixie's earnestly perky born-again sister, and Matt D'Amico as the rival to Roberto's throne. Bryant Mason is an excellent straight man as Roberto.
Whenever the play threatens to tip completely over into silliness, director Sam Gold reins it back in. Gold's sense of choreography and physical business is unerring, and the transitions from scene to scene feel almost as if he's editing film; they're more like jump cuts or cross-fades than ordinary entrances and exits. In Gold's hands, Ginsberg's hyperrealist set, enriched by Ben Stanton's lighting design, serves as all of the multiple locations within the play while still grounding the audience in the time and place of the framing device.
And because we remain conscious, if subliminally, of the frame, we remain conscious of Goizueta's larger subject, and thus of Martinez's: becoming American. I don't know that the play answers any of the questions it raises, nor even if it tries to. But it paints a picture of the America I grew up in that left me simultaneously bemused at, proud of, and faintly appalled by my own country—and thinking about why I felt all of those ways.