A LOT HAPPENED in 1965, including the Watts riots, the signing of the Voting Rights Act, and the escalation of the War in Vietnam. But not a lot of it had a direct impact on the working-class neighborhood of Decatur, Georgia, where S.P. Miskowski's new play Watusi takes place.
Hyperion Theater through June 4
Here, 13-year-old Marty (Jolyane Berg, in a twitchily impressive performance) is our guide both through a world of her imagination, which involves the president's daughter arriving in Decatur as part of her tour of the South, and through her significantly less fabulous family life. Her father is a dispirited drunk with unthinking racist attitudes, her mother's an argumentative shrew, her middle sister's a dim bulb, and even her oldest sister, who escaped years earlier by running off with a car mechanic, has returned home.
It'd be more pleasant to be laughing with the characters in Miskowski's world, but first off, there's not a lot of laughter to be had. The playwright's tired metaphor of Marty feeling like a Martian within her white-trash family is mined for what comic potential it holds, but the repeated "ironic" juxtaposition of ideals of Southern gentility with her low-class folks grows increasingly obvious. Other jokes, such as Anna Lee's insistence on calling her toilet a commode and Marvin's Archie Bunker-like attempts to control his household, seem inspired more by sit-coms than closely observed real life.
This is comedy with little insight and more than a little contempt for its subjects. Joe Seabeck's inventive direction and the strong cast do much to camouflage the script's inherent weaknesses. Watching Peggy Gannon, for example, fill out the lightly sketched role of Roberta the floozy neighbor is a good example of an actor pulling a MacGyver with a couple of scenes and some so-so dialogue. But ultimately it seems that Miskowski's plan has been to throw a lot of themes at the wall to see what sticks—and little of substance does.