Now that our society has gone totally crass and crazy — our schools, our politics, our broadcast media and our movies — what's an outraged, flummoxed playwright to do? Well, if you're William Missouri Downs, a name bristling with innate eccentricity, you push all that craziness further over the edge in The Exit Interview, now at the Actor's Theatre of Charlotte as part of a "rolling" world premiere presented by the National New Play Network.
Downs goes even further: He takes theater and its most revered 20th century polemicist, Bertolt Brecht, along for the ride. The result is a howlingly funny satiric roller coaster that fiendishly revels in running off the rails. Breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly is so yesterday for Downs. He breaks the fifth wall for repeated excursions outside the play we're watching into excerpts of other plays he has written. He sends in rewrites to the players during the show.
And if theater truly is floundering in America, maybe it needs to prostitute itself as shamelessly as the movies and TV. So he does that, too.
There's a fairly wild plot at the center of all this manipulative mayhem. Brechtian scholar Dick Fig has been fired from his university position, and he's been similarly dismissed by his oboe-playing girlfriend. Averse to small talk and dissembling, Dick would seem to be a perfect match for both academia and a weirdo girlfriend, but even at his exit interview, conducted in a cinder block bunker by a Dianetics airhead, he is crowded and cornered by the fatuousness of faith-based America.
Eunice, the interviewer, feels compelled to recommend the writings of her sacred guru and to display the collage she has fashioned as the vision of her future. Dick cannot escape this feckless proselytizing because a mad gunman is loose on the campus, so instead of bonding with Eunice, he sets about breaking down her beliefs. Meanwhile, the pompous ideologues of Fox News are pouncing on the opportunity of stamping their own skewed viewpoint on the campus violence. Coincidentally enough, Fox blowhard Walter Kendell breaks away from an interview with Dick's girlfriend to lend the campus the luster — and disruption — of his live presence.
As we learn in flashbacks, Dick was more proactive in the events leading up to the breakup with his girlfriend, disastrously failing the small-talk test in his first meeting with her mother and displaying some terrorist tendencies of his own. With so much going on, on campus and off, two cheerleaders — who will later play the girlfriend and her mom — explain to us that, due to the limited resources at Actor's Theatre, six actors will be playing the 22 roles in Downs's script. Soon-to-be girlfriend Lauren Dortch-Crozier and soon-to-be mom Jennie Greenfield combine in the peppiest, pom-pomiest, most cheerfully subversive and All-American play intro you'll ever see.
Confronted by the relentlessly upbeat Eunice, Joe Rux seems like an oasis of glumness as Dick after this hyper-peppy prologue. Rux is definitely on Downs' wavelength, realizing that in a sea of people seemingly overmedicated on Prozac and Zoloft, his glumness, skepticism and frankness shine as positive charms. But after painstakingly explaining all the Brechtian orthodoxies, why shouldn't Dick be in on all the Brechtian fun? He is, breaking into song twice, proving that Rux can sell that brilliantly, too.
On a rare off-campus excursion, UNC Charlotte's Kelly Mizell gives Eunice a poignant appeal as she gradually wilts under the stress of the terrorist threat and Dick's defensiveness — but not before she stamps her credulous personality and her unctuous profession as malignant nuisances. Crozier, marginally the dopier and more human of the two cheerleaders, is most human as the girlfriend, giving us our best perspective on Joe. Greenfield is noticeably crustier when she gets to be the girlfriend's conventional mom, but she may be excelling even more in the righteously irrelevant blackouts.
In his Charlotte debut, Brandon Smalls mostly lurks as the menacing gunman, increasing the portentousness of his agenda deep into Act 2 with his silence. But he does get numerous chances to break out in the digressions, though his best comic bit is as a thickly brogued, Irish Catholic priest trotted out during the media circus. Lee Thomas wanders successfully out of his cuddly comfort zone in multiple roles, most notably as the Fox News slickster in a phenomenally phony wig.
Stage director Chip Decker may have set the land speed record for Exit Interview performances on opening night with a clocking of 88 minutes, yet there's an effervescent blend of spontaneity and precision from beginning to end — method in the madness.