Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Last Smoker in America

Photo: Robert Saferstein

At a recent appearance, the creators of Next to Normal said that, between the good Off-Broadway version of their show and the excellent Broadway version, their producers had asked them what exactly they wanted the show to be about. The creators of Last Smoker in America (book and lyrics, Bill Russell; music, Peter Melnick) need to ask themselves that same question. The story of, well, the last smoker in America, the show wobbles between political satire and dysfunctional family comedy, with strengths--and weaknesses--in both arenas. In brief, as anti-smoking laws get more and more draconian, effigies of smokers are thrown into bonfires and a group called NAT-C is born; the very funny "If It Feels This Good" nicely summarizes a world--not that different from our own--where feeling good is perceived as a warning sign; and the line between virtual and real gunplay becomes blurred. Meanwhile, Pam (the last smoker) and Ernie sadly reminesce about their enjoyably vice-filled past ("Hangin' Out in a Smoky Bar") while failing to connect in the present, and their son Jimmy (the talented Alex Wyse) forgets to take his medication for ADHD, thrives on playing violent video games, and decides he is black ("Gangsta"). The fourth character, their neighbor Phyllis, is an aggressively smiling, holier-than-thou, anti-smoking crusader who barely keeps her inner monster in check. These characters all display the beginnings of three-dimensional people with aspirations and the ability to grow, but they are not there yet. I look forward to seeing the next incarnation of this show.

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