Self-indulgent theater for the self-consciously hip: That's the unintended premise of Trish Crist's Who, the follow-up to her award-winning What. Now onstage at Darkhorse Theater in a production from Crist's Rhubarb Theater Company and featuring a quartet of imminently likable actors - Robyn Berg, Melissa Hade, Chaz Howard and Bob Roberts - Who is presented as a series of vignettes that ask various questions that start out with the word "who," and as the sequel to What, it's very likely we'll see When, Where, Why and How in subsequent seasons (and judging from the final, dramatic "Where?" asked by all four actors in Who, my money's on that particular "W" as the next offering).
Crist is a promising writer - although her works for the theater would benefit greatly from some workshopping of the material before audiences are asked to buy tickets - and a warm-hearted, genuine woman who, quite frankly, I adore. But I don't adore being made to feel ignorant or unsophisticated because we don't like the same things.
In fact, my review can probably be laughed off and ignored because I am a hack (I love musical theater, don't you know!) since I don't give a fuck about The Poisonwood Bible or the last season of Lost (please gouge out my eyes instead of forcing me to sit through that, thank you very much!). And I use the word "fuck" here, not just for shock value, but to point out that expletives are used very rarely in Who (save for the ones I muttered under my breath), although when they are used, they seem to be interjected in an attempt to give Who some street cred.
In one sequence of Who (which moves very quickly despite its overbearing and didactic overtones), the four actors bombard their audience with questions about Amalie, Lost, The Poisonwood Bible and hip musicians, indicating how fucking cool they are for being privy to this information, while the nonplussed audience members who aren't cool are made to feel unworthy. While I think people who view themselves as "cool" are nothing but poseurs - and I find that so tremendously off-putting - I find it rude to condescend to your audience and make them feel like outsiders by pointing out that they're not as "hip" as you. Anyone who's gone to junior high knows how uncomfortable that is.
I didn't see What when it debuted a few years ago (which makes me a Pharisee among Nashville's theaterati, I'm certain), but I understand that it was very good - theater critic friends assure me that it was - and so I hoped to find in Who the type of memorable theater that script delivered. But I don't think my Who memories are the ones I was hoping for: faux intellectualism disguised as theater for the masses. Instead, it is inauthentic and it is filled with missed opportunities to capture the pop culture zeitgeist that permeates our fair city. Yet there are glimmers of promise in Who, amid the 90 minutes of stultifying, heavy-handedness; certain vignettes work beautifully and are either genuinely moving or entertaining.
Particularly edifying for Nashville audiences is the discussion of Fannie Mae Dees, who gave her life for her beloved neighborhood and her name to the Vanderbilt area park that's perhaps best known as "Dragon Park." It provides some much-appreciated background for a long-forgotten part of Nashville's not-so-distant past of which, let's face it, many people are completely unaware.
Chaz Howard performs "Who's Out There" with his expected good natured appeal, setting Crist's words about life in Nashville to music. It has the ring of truth and authenticity that makes it resonate with audiences. But all too often these Nashville-centric stories and quips seem too provincial, causing my cheeks to burn with embarrassment what with the Music City stereotypes that are perpetuated in Who.
Robyn Berg's choreography for "Who Needs A Partner" is set to the song "Ba-Boom" by Nashville musicians Moksha Sommmer and Jemal Wade Hines and she performs it wonderfully, but that particular vignette is so incongruous, set amid all these talky moments (Don't even get me started on the scene in which Melissa Hade walks onstage, looking demoralized and sighing deeply - what's the intention there? Where's the conflict? Ya got me!). Henceforth, I will always refer to it as "The Who Dream Ballet." Despite Berg's complete commitment to the piece (and her movements to the music are lovely), it just doesn't belong in Who.
Perhaps most confusing about Who - straining credulity to the breaking point - is the fact that the four actors play 17 characters, some of whom have character names created by the playwright, while the rest of the time they play Robyn, Melissa, Chaz and Bob, which is confusing: Are the actors playing themselves or characters created for a play? I don't know and, unfortunately, I just don't care.