nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 1, 2005
What if the gang from the Archies comic books graduated from Riverdale High and became real-life adults? What if Archie were gay, came out to his Dad, moved to New York City and became a writer, dating a Jimmy Olsen-like cub reporter? What if Veronica, the spoiled rich girl, roomed with Archie, Jughead, and Betty in an Alphabet City apartment and worked at the Whitney? What if Reggie, Archie's sometime nemesis, came down with a mysterious AIDS-like disease?
All of these what-ifs and more are examined by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa in his new play Golden Age. Following the lead of last year's FringeNYC hit Dog Sees God (which did the same sort of thing for the Peanuts gang), Aguirre-Sacasa has taken America's Favorite Teenagers and turned them into very troubled adults with very adult troubles. They've got new names: Archie is called Buddy Baxter here, but he's still the freckle-faced, friendly, carrot-topped All-American boy, even if he does tell us that he's been making out with school nerd Herbert Humphries for years now. Tapeworm Smith is the Jughead character, dim and perpetually hungry; perky blonde Rosemary Hope stands in for Betty; egotistical Freddie Smith is a ringer for Reggie; and of course spoiled heiress-type Monica Posh is Veronica.
Buddy leaves Riverdale for the University of Chicago, where he meets and eventually becomes roommate and lover to Nathan Leopold. Yes, that Nathan Leopold: the one who killed a 13-year-old boy for kicks with his pal Richard Loeb. A few years later, we find Buddy in the Big Apple, where he gets a job working for William Gaines at E.C. Comics, writing storylines for early horror and sci-fi comic books like "Tales of the Crypt." (This is the William Gaines who goes on to found MAD Magazine.) E.C. comes under fire for promoting juvenile delinquency, with a writer/psychologist named Frederic Wertham leading the charge; eventually there's a Congressional investigation and the magazine is ruined.
In Act Three of Golden Age, Buddy is working for Pixar and in a committed relationship with Jerry Youngman, a former cub reporter who has become moderately famous after surviving a bout with the scary plague that killed Buddy's old pal Freddie. They want to have a family, and in fact Rosemary is carrying their first child. But their hopes and dreams are dashed when Archie gets some disturbing, life-changing news.
If all of this plot summary makes you a little nervous about Golden Age, you're right: Aguirre-Sacasa has taken on way more here than he (or anyone else) can properly manage, and that's even before he introduces the two (contradictory) bombshells that facilitate his ironic, tragicomic ending. On the one hand, the playwright seems to want to comment on American life then and now using these archetypal comic book characters as fuel/ammunition: this is the part of Golden Age that works best. Scenes in which Buddy falls in love and, especially, in which Buddy comes out to his father feel authentic, honest, and warm; they offer the audience something genuine to react to.
But there's this whole weird Zelig thing going on in the play that never made sense to me: what is Buddy doing with Leopold and Loeb (and how/why does he time travel to the mid-1920s when the play is clearly set in contemporary times)? Similarly, the E.C. Comics episode turns out also to be based heavily in fact (though I didn't know that until I read the press kit after the show: is the average theatregoer really going to know this story?)—it's a piece of obscure history worth talking about, but what does it have to do with Buddy and his pals?
Pirandellian and metaphysical notions figure in the hasty resolution, along with an homage to Our Town that dissolves into post-modern parody. The net effect is: whazzat? What's going on here? I'm all for a playwright with ambition, but four divergent themes in a single two-hour play is going too far. Aguirre-Sacasa can write, especially resonant sincere stuff; what he needs to do is get a grip on his fancies and develop the several different play ideas included here (all promising, by the way) into several different plays.
The production is cleanly directed by Claire Lundberg and has been produced with immense care and attention to detail by Tobacco Bar Theatre Company. The acting is especially impressive: Christopher J. Hanke is terrific as Buddy, embodying all the iconography of Archie and making him into a flesh-and-blood, living man. Michael Chernus (Tapeworm), Sarah Elliott (Rosemary), Christopher Kromer (Freddie), and especially Tami Mansfield (Monica) nail their comic-book characters; Mansfield has the most to do, because Aguirre-Sacasa has a blast turning Monica loose in a variety of surprising situations in his play. Charles F. Wagner IV plays Buddy's Dad and a couple of other "father figures" with the proper authority. Greg Felden is excellent as Buddy's high school sweetheart Herbert and, less showily, as Gaines's assistant Al Feldstein at E.C. Comics (Kromer doubles, smartly, as Gaines). Cameron Cash is perfectly menacing and scuzzy as Richard Loeb. Only Patch Darragh seems miscast as the weak-willed Nathan and, particularly, as Buddy's main squeeze Jerry; Hanke deserves a cuter, more solid leading man than Darragh provides.
Golden Age is, for the most part, very entertaining. It would probably benefit from a few lines of dialogue that help audiences understand that the William Gaines/Frederic Wertham segment is based on fact (Monica and Rosemary are seen reading newspaper accounts of the Leopold and Loeb trial; that kind of verisimilitude would be useful for this sequence). And it would certainly benefit from significant sharpening of focus: it's just not clear to me what Aguirre-Sacasa is trying to tell us in this provocative play. And I think he does have quite a bit to say.