When it comes to encouraging and nurturing new work in theater, no other organization comes close to matching the track record of Cleveland Public Theater. Over the years, they have used multiple formats to help playwrights develop their plays from raw beginnings to the finished product.
And now, they are presenting the first work from their Catapult New Play Development program, which is intended to move works from early or mid-development phase to being production ready. This script, by the much-produced local playwright Eric Coble, is titled The Family Claxon. And it is a fast-paced, high energy mess from start to finish.
In his program notes, the estimable executive creative director of CPT, Raymond Bobgan, suggests that this play is an example of “cutting edge theater” and is “edgy and cool.” Although I have enormous respect for Bobgan and his remarkable achievements as a leader of theater in Cleveland and beyond, I beg to differ.
This play is about as entertaining as the loud, blaring car horn referenced in the title, and like an old-time claxon it is just as hard to listen to for 90 uninterrupted minutes. Coble’s work attempts to be fierce and over-the-top but then trots out well-worn jokes and lots of oh-aren’t-they-wacky! characters. In addition, there is non-stop running, and tripping as performers take pratfalls on scenic designer Ryan T. Patterson’s two-story set. In other words, we’ve seen all this before.
And it is all strung together with a noticeable lack of wit. The plot revolves around Andrew Claxon, a middle-age dad who is trying to throw a party for his way-past-elderly granddad on the old guy’s 150th birthday. Meanwhile, the house and the surrounding neighborhood are collapsing all around them. Granddad (Kayla Gray) sits slumped in a wheelchair for the entire show, aside from a few spasms and medical emergencies, while Andrew (Abraham McNeil Adams) dashes about the house, most of the time without his pants on, mugging continuously. Are you laughing yet?
The Claxon clan also includes mom Evette (Colleen Longshaw) who works for a big corporation as a C.I.M (Chief Inspiration Officer). Coble sets his sights on mocking corporate America, but his popgun references don’t even make a dent. Nor do his attempts at being current by having Claxon daughter Catie (Hillary Wheelock) and neighbor guy Zhang Sallerendos (JP Peralta) appear as “revolutionaries” who are fighting the system.
One reason that none of this lands effectively is that the accomplished director Craig J. George drives his cast to shout their lines while spouting them at maximum speed. As a result, any chance of being amused by some of Coble’s more nuanced comedic phrasings is bulldozed, and the cartoonish dystopian world he attempts to convey just seems boring and irritating.
Of course, the instinct to get through all of this as fast as possible is understandable given the tired ideas that are dragged out. For example, there are foreign people with funny names who talk weird, and they wander through the Claxon house in tried-and-true sitcom style. These people are played with varying degrees of understandable desperation by Victoria Zajac, Ananias J. Dixon, Maryann Elder and Olivia Scicolone.
Plus, there are many poop and pee jokes since the neighborhood is evidently sinking and toilets are exploding. Indeed, Andrew’s slacks are soaked with the stuff for a while, before he doffs them, while other actors wave their hands in front of their noses and make frowny faces, to remind us that poop smells bad. Hilarious. Noel Coward (and Joe Orton), eat your heart out.
There is also a lot of gunplay, with Andrew brandishing his “fully loaded” gun in various people’s faces and SWAT teams firing machine guns outside. Nothing funnier these days than guns, right?
Actually, there are a couple amusing micro-moments--when they reboot granddad like a frozen Dell computer, and when the coot finally liquefies as he takes his last breath. But they are overwhelmed by way too many banal gags and overacting.
Okay, what we have here is a dead horse, so I will lay down my cudgel. Suffice to say that CPT deserves our thanks for encouraging and staging new work. And that The Family Claxon should be taken out behind the barn and quietly interred. Cause of death: Terminal creative exhaustion.
The Family Claxon
Through October 28 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727, cptonline.org