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Rage against the Machine: Mum's the Word

History gets the drop on production company



The world has changed in the 34 months since I watched the premiere of Mum's the Word in the comfort of a Patchwerk Playhaus sofa in Plaza Midwood. So has playwright/director Matt Cosper's script and two of the three players in an intriguing reboot now at Duke Energy Theater. Four years into the Obama administration, we are no longer preoccupied with the arrogance and hubris of Bush 43, and Cosper's overhaul shows that he hasn't disregarded the winds of change.

As recently as three or four months ago, Mum's 2.0 might have seemed au courant. Through the wayward Internet, Lois and Todd Whitley still adopt a full-grown African. He still hops into their lives zipped up in a body bag. The Americans still have no rudimentary concept of parenting, and they still inhabit cocoons of booze, pills and have spacey, self-centered ideas of self-fulfillment.

But Cosper is no longer pushing the parallels between the Whitleys' adoption and America's rash adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Formerly, there was a language barrier between Todd and his adopted Nobel — only we knew what they were trying to communicate to one another. That barrier and its telling point about our great paternal ignorance have been discarded. I'm not sure we even hear the Somalian's nationality or name this time around, nor is he even slightly irritated that Lois insists on naming him Tyler Moses.

Because of Cosper's escape from topicality, newcomers to Mum's are likely to crave the sinew of a story. That's one of the key reasons why the new Machine Theatre production is less impactful than the 2010 edition, winner of the Best Original Show prize in CL's annual theater awards. The other emerges shortly after Tyler is unzipped: He's carrying a gun. History has clearly wrong-footed Cosper here. Waving a gun in a theater requires a lot more than passing acknowledgement if you're producing a new American play in January 2013.

Instead, he retreats into comical absurdism, repeatedly tearing down the fourth wall. He couldn't have chosen a better actor for that purpose than Robert Lee Simmons, whose Todd isn't too different from his bravura performance as Cort in ThomThom, Cosper's absurdist takedown of To Kill a Mockingbird. The same leer rears up now and then, but Todd is more the stoned clown than Cort. Simmons also talks up the crowd before and during the show, taking one memorable break to play the "Never Did That Before" drinking game with the crowd while handing out free PBRs.

Simmons is less neurotic than James Yost was as Todd 1.0, and Lauren Dortch Crozier is less delusional than Julie Strassel was as Lois. She gets less pushback from Tyler, for one thing, and she also steps out of character from time to time to address us.

Cosper draped the entire Playhaus stage in baggy plastic when Machine Theatre originally presented Mum's the Word. At the Duke, he strips the stage so we see various pill bottles and props on the sills of Spirit Square's stained-glass windows. As before, exits aren't done into the wings. Actors slip behind little black curtains upstage as if they were in voting booths. Stage manager Kelly Nicholson serves as a further buffer against suspending disbelief, situated in the down-right sector of the stage and part of the action as she cues up Clarence Carter's deathless song "Patches" for a particularly tender paternal moment.

The script would probably be better if Cosper reaped more of these dregs of pop culture, schooled Tyler on American gun worship, or got him into more serious trouble — a "top of the world, Ma!" moment would be adorable. As a result, Beniam Tekola is less impactful as Tyler than he was the first time around as Nobel/Tyler, The Kid. He's still beyond the Whitleys' abilities to parent or comprehend, but I wish Tekola were as volatile now as he was in 2010 and that Tyler 2.0 were harder to handle.

Tekola gets the last word once again, telling us in the audience what he scornfully directed at the clueless Todd when Mum's the Word was first born: The white race is over. Problem is, after Cosper's rewrite, we don't feel that the play is over when we reach this dire announcement — or that Tyler has sufficient authority to make it.

What we have here is more of a lesson for Cosper than for us. Or so I hope. When you're a talented artist with a vision, you don't respond to changing times by retooling a past success. You create a new one, as I'm confident this playwright can. As for Mum's the Word, I'd simply advise Cosper to exhume the original manuscript and let it steep on a shelf until the next time we're foolish enough to elect another saber-rattling Republican. Shouldn't be too long. We're that stupid as a nation.

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