Three Dollar Bill
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 4, 2005
Kirk Wood Bromley—he of the pyrotechnic wordplay, the gut-busting sensibility, and the awe-inspiring imagination—is back, in top form in a form he's not attempted before: three short plays on a single riveting, relevant theme, collectively titled Three Dollar Bill. If you prize the kind of theatre where language flexes its muscles to challenge your intellect, where pure poetry produces gasp-inducing flights of fancy, where ideas leap ingeniously all over the stage making connections you never quite saw before—then this is the show you will want to see this month.
Bromley, who has tackled such epic subjects as millennial angst, patriotism, and the origins of the theory of evolution in some of his previous plays, here takes on the broad theme of hatred. He zooms in on one particular archetype of hate, homophobia, and in three different ways examines how we let virulent bigotry dehumanize and diminish us.
There is, most centrally, the pair posited in the second play of the evening, Civilization and Its Disco Tents. A man comes to visit a therapist whose specialty is "curing" gay people (i.e., changing their orientation to straight). The equation of gay=abnormal is what's investigated here, and how that too-pervasive line of thinking destroys the self-esteem of those who buy into it. Self-hatred is also one of the subjects of the first play on the bill, What Are You Thinking, Mary Cheney?, but it's not the only one: here, Bromley looks at the disastrous effects of politicizing and institutionalizing homophobia, as a symptom of a larger disorder that he sees afflicting the too-rich-and-powerful who eschew objective truth in favor of easy, short-term (ill-gotten) gain.
The final piece, The Welcome Mask, plays with stereotypes and labels as it examines a "typical" nuclear family who suspect that one of their members may be turning into an "Eskimo":
Up north. They rub noses. They dance in groups....
They propagate subcultures. They wear beads.
They advocate special Eskimo rights.
They have taken a word that means “happy,”
All to themselves, so now you can’t use it
Without getting beaten up in a bar.
All of the plays in Three Dollar Bill are edgy, envelope-pushing, in-your-face; they deliberately cross the line between good and bad taste, right and left and right and wrong; they test their own limits and ours as they make us think, hard and right this minute, about the issues they trade in. They are also all very, very funny, providing belly laughs of the naughtily loopy variety (as here, from Civilization and Its Disco Tents):
Dunketh not the cookie cock of Satan
Into the milk of man, lest it crumbleth
And despoil his pure and creamy richness!
As for topical humor that will make any self-respecting liberal feel good about him/herself again, there's paydirt here as well, especially in the Mary Cheney play:
Taxes – take from the rich and give to the poor ruins them both.
Church and state – separation doesn’t mean divorce.
Education – it’s like penis extensions; if everyone gets one, no one gets one.
It's like a chain reaction of comedy: every line is a high-energy particle with an explosive payoff, and we're bombarded with them as they bounce around the room and off the walls and into our consciousness.
Director Howard Thoresen provides a classy, smart, and elegant staging; the design team (Jane Stein, set; Karen Flood, costumes; Jeff Nash, lighting; and John Gideon, sound) all make strong contributions. Gillian Chadsey does expert and assured work as the scary, assured Mary Cheney; Inverse Theatre regulars Timothy McCown Reynolds and Bob Laine deliver tour de force performances as the rabid dad in The Welcome Mask and the crazy therapist in Civilization and Its Disco Tents; and John McConnel, Elisa Blynn, David Nash, and Sonja O'Hara round out the excellent ensemble.