A simple business transaction spoke volumes—nay, anthologies—about the cultural decimation of unsuspecting little Bayonne, N.J., in the 1980s. Finally and reluctantly, the owners of the Spread Eagle tavern sold out. New management changed the handle to the far more pedestrian Oliver's Bar, haven of social and alcoholic mediocrity among the disenfranchised 20-something community. I don't know about you, but I think the Eagle must have been a much more interesting place, especially given the fact that it catered mostly to men—tee-hee.
A place like that, in fact, would have helped advance the action in Hysterical Blindness, the current entry from Backyard Productions. As it stands, this is certainly a spirited piece, with decent chemistry and a lighting design that just won't quit amid its insistence that you focus on the moral of the piece. But too often, Laura Cahill's script turns to story devices for their own sakes. Nothing in the play points to Bayonne as a better setting than Wichita Falls, any more than 1987 (the exact year) works more efficiently than 1433. The characters are disparate and fun as conceived by director Francis Gercke, but they also suffer from a lack of those vital cultural parameters (except, of course, for Spread Eagle, the coolest bar name in recorded history).
We do get the idea that bright-but-ditzy Debby (Jessica John) likes the beer at Oliver's a lot, especially on weekends. She's also been known to dispense her favors freely between bouts of despair over her aimlessness in life, and she commiserates with the vapid Beth (Amanda Sitton) on the best and worst of it all. Once, in fact, her despond resulted in an attack of hysterical blindness, or temporary loss of vision due to stress. Meanwhile, her waitress mom Virginia (Jill Drexler) has taken up with Nick (Dale Morris), a dimwitted but earnest sort whose main satisfaction lies in this budding relationship. The simple things, he seems to say, will fuel happiness—as if Debby'd ever listen.
Everybody's fine in their portrayals, with Nick's dull, frumpy exterior an ideal counterpoint to Debby's flash and bellow. Beneath the bombast, Debby's a mixed-up little kid, and John reflects this to a T. Dylan Seaton is properly aloof as Debby's would-be boyfriend Rick; Jonathan Sachs makes the most of his short-lived character Bobby the bartender; and Eric Lotze's great one-note light design insists we hear Cahill out.
And never mind that at least one musical entry in M. Scott Garbau's sound design is from the '70s, or that he passed over Tears for Fears' magnificent “Head Over Heels” as a cue for Debby's amorous sensibilities. His music beds color the action well, especially because he knows when to exercise restraint.
But c'mon. It's friggin' 1987. Chernobyl; a huge nuclear arms treaty; the Challenger space shuttle disaster; the Karen Ann Quinlan right-to-die flap: That recent history provides a million flashpoints for Debby's desire to turn her life around, and not a one of 'em does Cahill address. She's given Debby and the others a forum for their discontent, but she never really lets them speak. Surely, the world in 1987 revolved around more than Debby, Oliver's or, for that matter, unsuspecting little Bayonne, N.J. This review is based on the opening-night performance of April 20. Hysterical Blindness runs through May 11 at Cygnet Theatre's Rolando venue, 6663 El Cajon Blvd. $18-$25. 619-995-2225 or www.sdbackyardproductions.com.