“For a prolific writer like Irving Greenfield, the idea that his work might not be everyone’s cup of drama is probably not terribly troubling. However, the idea that his work might be censored has Mr. Greenfield as incensed as any writer would be. So incensed, in fact, that he might create a whole ‘nother work to illustrate just how incensed he is. A work like “Banned in Bisbee”, a play Greenfield wrote in response to his “Depth Force” novels being removed from library bookmobiles in Bisbee, Arizona following the accidental exposure of a nine year old patron to the adult language and situations therein.
With our country only weeks away from the federal government creating a “Department of Conscience and Religious Freedom” it’s easy to see why Director Laurie Rae Waugh and Jim Jennings’ American Theatre of Actors decided to revive Greenfield’s play. Book banning is the thin end of a very dangerous wedge. “Religious Freedom” is a dog-whistle to Christian Evangelicals. Both of those things are going on in the here and now, and this play, which was written some years back, is timely in a way that it wouldn’t have been during the Obama administration.
The play begins when Captain Jack Boxer (Ken Coughlin), the lead character in Greefield’s racy novels, and his first officer Master Chief Paul Gomez (Manny Rey), miraculously appear in the dreamscape of Mayor and Book-banner William Wholemouth (Nick Pascarella) and his wife Mary Lou Beth (Gina Zenyuch). There are a lot of rules that seem to apply to situations like this – one of them being that Boxer and Gomez can appear in the dreams of both William and Mary Lou Beth at the same time. Whatever the rules, Captain Jack, played with a steady-as-she-goes conviction and much leadership drive by Mr. Couglin, is on a mission to convince these rubes that what they’ve done in banning the Depth Force series is not only bigoted but completely hypocritical.
Boxer and Gomez next appear in the down-at-the-heels bar run by Hank, (Tony Scheer) who’s mouthing of god-fearing platitudes foreshadows the inevitable moment when he, like everyone else in Bisbee, is revealed to have feet of clay. The interlopers are soon backed into a corner by Sherriff Freddie (Robert Uller), who alerts the FBI (Joshua Patriarco in a wild turn as “Agent Zachs”) that a couple of Naval Officers seem to have appeared in landlocked, desert Arizona for no discernible reason. Uller gets laughs playing Freddie as a kind of Barnie Fife on steroids, and Patriarco tears the stage up, first as Zachs, with a dash of Bluto Blutarski, and then in a dual role as Fong Shun Un, a pirate character from Greenfield’s books who materializes out of sheet spite in order to mess with Boxer.
Manny Rey is delightful as Boxer’s second in command, and Tony Scheer as Hank brings the pure professionalism and balance that a play this over-the-top very much needs. Amid the naughty-word alarms and a lot of innuendo, we find blunt-talking librarian June Furst (played by the funny and very charming Meredith Rust). Furst, as a librarian, is naturally on the side of truth and freedom of speech, and in the course of speaking freely about her own personal life outs Hank as having been her lover for years on the not-very-down-low.
The Wholemouth family themselves are characterized as you might expect, but Nick Pascarella plays the mayor with such such sweet hangdog resignation that you feel sorry for him rather than angry at him. Gina Zenyuch also brings a lively softness to the role of Mary Lou Beth in a role that easily could have been one-note and unsatisfying in the wrong hands, and Aaron Vargas as “little” Billy Wholemouth relishes his great reveal (that he knew damned, excuse me, darned well when he brought the book home that it was a Greenfield potboiler and not a Garfield-the-cat) without turning the character into a cartoon.
Direction by Laurie Rae Waugh moves along at an appropriately brisk pace, keeping the action moving while still making sure the jokes land. And Ken Coughlin, doing quadruple duty as leading man, set designer, lighting and sound, makes sure that Waughs vision is breezy, fun and tightly-wound.
Taking quite a few shots at the holier-than-though attitude rife in our current political system, the play gets its point across while still being entertaining and enjoyable. Like any good satire, the points being made in this Greenfield play will linger after the laughter is over, making the audience think it through after the curtain has gone down.
You can see “Banned in Bisbee” at the American Theatre of Actors, 314 West 54th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues, 4th Floor, at 8 PM on:
Wednesday, September 12th,
Thursday, September 13th,
Friday, September 14th and
Saturday, September 15th.
There will also be a matinee on Sunday, September 16th, which will be the last performance. $20 Tickets are available for reservation by calling the theatre at 212.581.3044, or via Smartix.com at the following URL