Along with dents on every fifth car, which people can’t afford to repair, and a beer at Petco costing more than the hourly minimum wage, short theatrical runs are a sign of the times. High rents are forcing homeless theater companies to close before word of mouth, which takes at least four weeks in San Diego, can spread. With this in mind, assume that Moxie Theatre’s Listener opened last month, not last weekend, and that theatergoer friends urged you to see it before it closes June 29.
After the Great Pandemic of 2008, and the catastrophic effects of The Warming — tidal waves, earthquakes, perfect storms — earthlings began terra-forming the moon. One faction said they should have spent the money to save Earth. Another, much larger one, said that, given the ravaged ecosystem and the necessary adaptations, “It was more logical just to start over” on Nerth: i.e., “new Earth.”
As they rocketed to the moon, the Chosen refused to take the “too stupid, or the unfit.” Those left behind breathe carcinogenic air, giving them a life expectancy of 40 years max.
The Listener, by Liz Duffy Adams, begins on old Earth, three generations later. Denizens of Junk City, called the “Findahs,” gather detritus. If the object’s unknown, the Namer gives it a name. And the Jimmies try to make it work. The most sacred relic, an old shortwave radio, has been “jimmied” more than any other. A woman called the Listener makes regular broadcasts and never leaves the machine. As yet no one has answered, which makes her wonder if she’s only a “voice with no meaning.”
Part of The Listener’s appeal: Junk City’s people half-remember the past or meld myths together. And they speak a mixed-language, as if suffering partial amnesia. They have several “dema-gogs,” among them Okra and El Vis (who “was too sad to live”), but only one “gog”: Sam (sometimes “Sam the uncle”). Their creation myth depicts a fall. Eve, a doubter, ate from the tree of knowledge and learned the secrets of Tek (i.e., technology). She and her followers fell from grace because Sam wanted Tek’s secrets for himself. He smote doubters with tempests and conflagrations. They fled to the moon and became “Lunatics, mad demonic pitiable wicked creatures.”
Sam forbade those left behind to make new Tek. So they jimmy and dream of Edenic grass sprouting amid the slag — and, the Listener’s quest, of contact with fellow earthlings.
Then John arrives from Nerth (one of Adams’s linguistic fillips: his name recalls both Johns of the Bible and, when the Findahs put an a before it, a hooker’s “john”). He means well but brings ideological mayhem to Junk City.
At the Lyceum Space, Amy Chini’s set — a rusty mound of wheels, hubcaps, warped metal — and Eric Lotze’s sleek orange sunset, make an indelible first impression. Jennifer Eve Thorn and Sheri Kraus’s hybrid costumes combine eras: at one point, Walter Murray’s proud, threatened Namer could be wearing George Washington’s blue general’s coat. The Findahs (Tim Parker and Rachael Van Wormer, a wonderfully vehement sprite) sport mud-caked duds from Mad Max. As John, who has eyes for the Listener, a precise Steven Lone dons basic black. And the excellent Jo Anne Glover, who makes the Listener the most robotic and, in the end, most human, wears a tattered outfit off the Les Miz rack.
The Listener is the third Adams play Moxie’s staged (along with Dog Act and Wet, or the Horse Latitudes). The script’s better at depicting a strange new world than making its way through. But even amid some second-act doldrums, gifted director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg always keeps the stakes high and the emotions ripe.
* * *
On Broadway, the 1960s begin with Bye Bye Birdie, in which Conrad Birdie (i.e., Elvis) joins the Army. The decade ends with Hair, in which Claude gets drafted, and his tribe protests. Compared to Hair’s diatribes, Birdie’s concerns seem innocuous. But beneath Michael Stewart’s lively satire lurks a fear, at the time, on a par with Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Hip-shaking Conrad Birdie threatens 1960 America not with becoming pod-gestated drones, but the exact opposite: sexual awakening.
One of the best features of San Diego Musical Theatre’s Birdie, which, like Moxie’s Listener, concludes its short run this weekend: the chorus of women, young and old, go blind, screeching primal in Conrad’s presence. Led by Stefanie Miller’s hair-trigger Ursula, they swoon, faint, and flop about, as if prying themselves from myriad inhibitions.
That energy propels the show — especially when the cast cuts loose for “Lot of Livin’ to Do” — as do the multitalents of Natalie Nucci, as Rosie, and clear-voiced Jill Townsend’s Kim MacAfee. As Albert J. Peterson, Conrad’s PR-spewing business manager, Paul Clausen sings quite well but overplays the neuroses, which would be funnier if emerging from within. Albert hypes Conrad as “a fine, upstanding, patriotic, healthy, normal American Boy.” He’s anything but (imagine Eddie Haskell in gold lamé), though James Royce Edwards plays him that way. Edwards handles Birdie’s numbers with ease but could suggest a more liberating menace to prim women young and old. Conrad should be an equal-opportunity body snatcher.
The Listener, by Liz Duffy Adams
Moxie Theatre, Lyceum Space, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown
Directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg; cast: Jo Anne Glover, Walter Murray, Tim Parker, Rachael Van Wormer, Steven Lone; scenic design, Amy Chini; costumes, Jennifer Eve Kraus, Sheri Kraus; lighting, Eric Lotze; sound, Tom Jones
Playing through June 29; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-544-1000.
Bye Bye Birdie, book by Michael Stewart, music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Lee Adams
San Diego Musical Theatre, East County Performing Arts Center, 210 East Main Street, El Cajon
Directed by Dan Mojica; cast: Paul Clausen, Natalie Nucci, Jeffrey Parsons, Stefanie Miller, Jill Townsend, Karen Johnson, John Martin, A.J. Foggiano, James Royce Edwards, Lana Hartwell, Andy Collins, Brenna Fleeman-Delay; scenic design, Chris Beyries; lighting, Jennifer Edwards; sound, Larry Esau; music director/conductor, Don Le Master
Playing through June 29; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-560-5740.