The night started when the scurvy little blob of a kid iced the members of a wedding party 'cause he wanted to share their croutons with the audience. The gal a few rows down couldn't have stifled her gale-force laughter if she'd wanted to; that scene from Jean Cocteau's The Wedding on the Eiffel Tower had her (and the rest of us) by the ass.
This avant-garde milestone scathingly slams the advance of technology, class distinction and wartime mentality. Add the auspices of San Diego's gritty Vantage Theatre, and it also becomes a superior entry in a three-play bill running in repertory at the Lyceum Theatre downtown.
The San Francisco Mime Troupe of 1960s America had a similar idea-social discontent was acute in Cocteau's post-World War I Paris, and director Robert Salerno fleeces the fervor in The Wedding.
He gilds Cocteau's disenchantment with the defiance of a true iconoclast. The scene where the boy pelts the guests is handled almost joyfully, and Sheila Rosen's bright costumes and Salerno's great stop-and-go stage pictures eventually yield dancing telegrams, a hunter who can't see past his nose (Terence Burke), a pompous paper-tiger general (Rhys Green) and the dubious prospect behind ostriches and lions disappearing into a camera.
A funny Priscilla Allen and Charlie Riendeau don't narrate so much as pontificate; their heads are encased in vintage phonographs to illustrate our technological disconnect. What's more, the play is done in pantomime-and as Cocteau robs the actors of their speech, so too does he predict similar estrangement for us all. His play is a hilarious textbook on the almost mean-spirited absurdity of everyday life and the realization that we're not alone in our dismay.
The second one-act is The Painting, one of Romania-born playwright Eugene Ionesco's wonderful works. Ionesco moved to France in the late 1930s, just as a Hitler sought to plunder the globe in the name of his Master Race. He found something bourgeois in such psychopathy and his plays illustrated the asininity of social distinction and the false values it creates. It's a world in which the Corpulent Gentleman (a brilliant Allen) talks a young artist (Jim Turner) into renting space for display of his own work in the Gentleman's home.
Underneath his riches, of course, the Gentleman is worth the cost of the carbon it takes to keep him viable. The crazy climax says as much, preceded by a tirade from the man's sister, Alice (Laura Bozanich). This role is somewhat underwritten, further affected by Salerno's underdirection of it.
The final entry of the night, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, is playwright Terrence McNally at less than his best, although the show features the right look and decent production values. Director D. J. Sullivan patiently shepherds actors Daren Scott and Devlin in a quirky tale about requited love and one party's unsettling persistence to that end. But McNally's small talk renders Frankie's fears almost anticlimactic. And there's something Woody Allen-ish about Johnny's befuddlement-while Scott's OK philosophically, he could go further in adopting an according body language.
No such complacency was evident in the patron who went crazy. She had a ball during the absurdist plays, delighting in a visit from two of the most renowned figures of their genre. "You don't see this stuff done here," she declared afterward, her smile threatening to split her face.
Her observation speaks to a trait that San Diego's arts scene sorely lacks.
New York and San Francisco came to be this country's theater capitals through a key element that San Diego misses-the true spirit of competition. Competition, after all, yields the difference between some fine absurdist fare every so often versus a yearly absurdist festival, however modest.
At this point in San Diego's theater history, the like-minded company could essentially create its own ground floor, propelling others to follow suit in search of that girl who busted a gut.
If relatively unsung heroes like Vantage don't do it (and here they do it pretty darn well), who will?This review is based on the performances of March 7. Frankie and Johnny and the "C'est l'Absurd!" program run through March 28 at the Lyceum Theatre. $10-$22. 619-544-1000.