Friday, May 22, 2009

A Play on Words

Photo/David Burbank

One could spend a great deal of time quibbling over every line of Brian Dykstra's A Play on Words, but that would be giving into his game. Not that wordplay is such a terrible thing, but you'd be better off with a crossword: at least those don't cheat. Or at least when they do, you're eventually rewarded with the satisfaction of catching a gimmick. Here, the madcap banter between two cartoonish neighbors (and former classmates) is expected to be its own reward--"Seinfeld meets Waiting for Godot," it claims, without realizing that even if it were true, it would be redundant.

This review digresses, but mainly because it doesn't want to regress--to lower itself to Dykstra's level. (Instead, it seeks the egress.) In any case, if Dykstra doesn't "give a hang" about the ninety-minute conversation he has with co-star Mark Boyett, why should this review? Then again, the main fault of A Play on Words--aside from not being funny--is that it belabors its point--that "language is the opposite of communication"--by jumping from tangent to tangent to the tangent of a tangent. What's more, to accommodate this nonsense, Dykstra's characters are reduced to mouthpieces, and then reduced further: to mouthpieces that sound exactly the same. Boyett may be on stage with Dykstra, but it's really just to give Dykstra a chance to catch his breath. He might as easily have bounced his ideas off a wall, and given how stiffly Boyett walks, clinging to his props, it's possible that director Margarett Perry had exactly that in mind.

Only Kelly Syring's set design sets things straight, with a tire-swing so large that it reveals Boyett and Dykstra as the precociously verbal eight-year-olds that they are. (If every line were replaced with "Are too" and "Am not," the tone would be exactly the same.) In this case, Boyett is the stubborn one, who would rather insist that "I find myself wanting to hang stuff in people's houses" than admit that his etymological theory is way off base. (For the record, you may be able to confuse etymology with entomology, but if you wind up with endocrinology--as this play does--you're just trying too hard.) In turn, this makes Dykstra the bullying one, so eager to pick a fight that it's wholly implausible every time he purports to be angry at the time he's wasting. (How do you think I feel?)

Eventually, A Play on Words manages to get around to politics, which at least gives it a shred of relevance. (After all, compared to the mindless ranting of two talking heads, this show is comic genius.) However, even here, development of any kind continues to elude Dykstra, so he gives up on grounding the play and goes back to gerunding it. Seinfeld (and Larry David) could talk about nothing because it had solid characters: mirrors, if you will, of the vapidity of American culture. Dexterously impressive as some of these rants may be, Dykstra needs a whole hell of a lot more to tackle the vapidity of language.

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