The Archie conflict isn't the first time an Atlanta theater's irreverent interpretation has caught the ire of an established group. In 1997, the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization blocked Actor's Express from staging director Chris Coleman's concept production of Oklahoma!, presented as a rehearsal of the musical after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Dad's Garage itself had a less serious encounter when it was denied the rights to produce legendary Broadway flop Carrie: The Musical. The theater got around that roadblock by simply writing an unauthorized musical parody, Carrie White: The Musical.
While the storyline of Archie's Weird Fantasy satirizes the famous comic book characters, Daniels says that the show's more serious themes -- including realistic depiction of the comic book censorship trials of the 1950s -- could disqualify the play from legal protection as parody. Daniels says that to avoid legal action while maintaining the play's integrity, the theater is changing its title and character names. So don't be surprised if you go to Dad's and see Weird Comic Book Fantasy, a play about the twisted grown-up adventures of "Buddy Baxter."
Every metropolis should have a Steve Murray, a witty playwright whose work explains the character of a city to itself. His themes can travel anywhere -- he typically examines the foibles of sex and romance and whether the twain shall meet -- but his work lives up to the urbane air that Atlanta likes to imagine itself as having.
Murray's plays sometimes have explicitly local settings, with Cupid's Bones set at a Ninth Street house shortly after the Freaknik party in 1994. More often, the time and place isn't fixed, but Atlantans can recognize hometown places and personality types. Murray even does some of his work in the city's public places, writing the first 10 minutes of his long-running show Rescue and Recovery on a notepad at Blake's on 10th Street.
His latest play, Manna, having its world premiere at Actor's Express, was inspired by people talking on cell phones at Piedmont Park, which provides one of the show's recurring locales. If Murray's plays provide a barometer for Atlanta's state of mind, then Manna suggests that these days, the city is preoccupied with sex, money and technology. His first play since 1999's Rescue and Recovery, Manna is a change of pace, being at once sillier and darker than Murray's usual work.
The 21st century farce suggests that modern communications hinder more than facilitate the course of true love. An airhead heiress (Heather Starkell) accidentally switches cell phones with an anthropology professor (Kathleen Wattis), who gradually enters a kinky phone sex relationship with the girl's rich, shady father (Kim Shipley).
Murray offers sexually liberated slapstick in pursuit of a serious exploration of the tension between material gain and spiritual matters, or what the professor calls "Mammon vs. manna." Perhaps not surprisingly for a play written in Atlanta, Mammon wins out, at least in the short run. Yet Murray's cynical ending isn't entirely persuasive. His sympathetic characters, like Wattis' saucy yet melancholy academic, are so much more realistic than the exaggerated "bad" ones that we don't really swallow the play's resolution. Manna feels like something the playwright needed to get out of his system, but doesn't quite believe himself.
Having written a play that's in part a satire of modern technology, Murray saw technology take its revenge, having suffered two computer crashes last year that lost him three-and-a-half plays in rough draft form. He's currently trying to decide which, if any of them, he plans to reconstruct, and he's writing a commission tentatively titled Color of Bones for Theater Emory.
Murray is also expanding his work to include more non-theatrical writing, having recently completed a novel. It would be a shame for Atlanta's theater scene to lose him entirely, as the city would seem less cosmopolitan without him. Manna runs through May 3.
Entrances Whet Acts, a new theater company under the artistic direction of Leslie Ann and Lee Coburn, is staging its inaugural production, David Ives' comic "six-pack" All in the Timing, June 7 at the Hapeville Recreation Center and June 12-21 at Blank Stage on Luckie Street. The fledgling theater is having a fundraising party at the Echo Lounge April 9, with music provided by Band of Thetans, You Are the Conquest, and Tangled. For information call 770-947-8512 or go to www.whetacts.com.
Off Script is a biweekly column on the Atlanta theater scene.
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