A werewolf, pirate, clown, skeleton, and fairy princess walk into a Dunkin' Donuts. (Well, two of them are in wheelchairs, and one's on crutches). Not only have you not heard this one before, but it quickly becomes apparent--around the time that Shelly loosens her lockjaw grip on a Blow Pop to quietly announce "[My dad] said he was sorry that guy raped me"--that under the cute costumes and the clever banter, Kristin Newbom's Telethon isn't kidding around. It's a Clubbed Thumb production (the final third of their 2009 Summerworks series), so it is of course "funny, strange, and provocative," but under Ken Rus Schmoll's savagely direct staging, you'll want to check your preconcieved notions at the door.
Newbom quickly sets the stage: Scott (Greg Keller) and Ann (Christina Kirk) sort their earnings, as their crippled wards, Jerry (Andrew Weems) and Shelly (Birgit Huppuch) grab one another's goats. Their compadre Gary (Debargo Sanyal) would contribute, but he's got a muscular paralysis (ala Hawkings), and so contents himself to contribute arm-shakes of attentive agreement and the occasional reminder: "Aaahm hammaseccccuaahhl." The same sad rhythm holds true for the increasingly piatiable scenes, set during Christmas (manger costumes) and Easter (in rabbit regalia), and the actors deliver such consistent performances that it takes a long time to notice how increasingly bare their circumstances are.
What works so effectively is that while we fall in love with these characters--each needy in their own right--the five of them are unable to love one another. Ann and Scott perhaps lust for one another, but the former is too chilled by her creditors to think of much beyond her job and her child, and the latter is crippled himself by panic attacks. Jerry and Shelly pick at one another, but only as the best of not-really-enemies can--Jerry lashes out not from any real anger, but rather from a lack of memory, and Shelly's too blissfully aware of her own victimization to get beyond it, which is why she's right to say she doesn't "get good milage" from being damaged goods. This makes the way they try to one-up each other--to participate, or simply function--all the more tragic. And then there's Gary, who understands love, but has to spend an entire scene pecking out his explanation for it on the computer: "[Love] always seems to arrive, in one form or another, humble or exalted."
Telethon is humblingly beautiful--a tragedy dressed up in a comic's rags. It shines all the more if you consider that this rag-tag group to be a stand-in for anyone in America who is downtrodden and easily dismissed. It's a harsh enough indictment to count charity entirely in crinkled dollar bills--but it's damning to realize the way in which we've franchised it . . . at the disenfranchised cost of compassion and love.