Center REPertory Company’s Rocket Man takes place in a cluttered attic (an excellent set by Richard Olmsted) that gets progressively less cluttered as the main character puts all his belongings out on the lawn for people to take. Like the old saw about a clean desk indicating a cluttered mind, the script becomes more and more filled with threads that don’t really go anywhere — just like the wiring in those crosswalk buttons, as our aimless protagonist Donny finds out when he takes one apart. We’ve heard this one before, but playwright Stephen Dietz’ take on it is pretty funny — it’s only when this stand-up staple gets played for poignancy that it begins to falter. “We demand the illusion of involvement,” Donny says. “Give us a button: that’s all we ask.” As a central metaphor for life, pressing the “Walk” button lacks a certain oomph.
On the whole, in fact, Rocket Man feels like a series of stand-up routines — Did you ever wonder about those crosswalk buttons? Hey, wouldn’t it be weird if people aged backwards? — blown up into a meandering drama. The idea of alternate realities is introduced only tentatively before it becomes a major plot theme, and the plot itself — the earthly one anyway — is set up only to be scrapped and replaced with a variant one. There are some hilarious one-liners, but the generally strong cast seems uncomfortable throughout, as if they’re having a hard time being believable when the text doesn’t lend itself to that end. It’s a shame, too, because said cast includes some reliable local heavy hitters: Howard Swain stars as the idle landscape architect who has shut down entirely since his wife left him and is literally throwing his life away, and Joe Bellan plays his older and slightly less wacky neighbor who hears voices from major appliances.
The rest of the roles are exactly that: roles to be filled in Donny’s life. They exist only in relation to him. Susi Damilano is dynamic as Donny’s estranged yuppie wife Rita. Danielle Thys gamely does what she can with the part of the best friend who has gone to seminary seemingly because she can’t have Donny (get thee to a nunnery indeed). And Evelyn Sue Dayton makes up in second-act serenity for her first-act tantrums as disappointed daughter Trisha. Otherwise strong performances keep descending into wooden expository dialogue and overwrought emoting, as director Lee Sankowich tries to wring drama out of the equivalent of a melancholy Coneheads sketch. When your hero tries to use a stolen crosswalk button and an easy chair to transport himself to an alternate reality, my best advice is to try not to take it too seriously.
Suddenly sci-fi, the second act doesn’t try so hard to be believable in the human sphere, and therefore is more successful. Dietz seems to hit his stride exploring an extended what-if scenario, although he is a bit too generous with the easy ironies in his bizarro world. The trouble is, he flirts with the idea of alternate realities but never marries it, and the main false notes are when he tries to tie up the broken thread of the first act. “I just follow one simple rule,” Bizarro Donny says as he tells his neighbor the secret of his marriage. “Just do the opposite of what feels natural.” Rocket Man is most enjoyable when it follows that advice, and drags when brought down to earth.
The small basement of a Northside pizza parlor with purple flames currently painted all along the black walls, La Val’s Subterranean is a far cry from Center REP’s cushy digs in Walnut Creek’s Dean Lesher Center, and that intimacy is perfectly suited for lighter fare such as Impact Theatre’s Say You Love Satan. Then, too, Impact caters to a young audience — at least three times younger than the crowd at the Sunday matinee of Rocket Man — so the play’s Gen-X cultural references mostly hit the mark. Written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, the new scripter of one of The Fantastic Four titles, this hilarious new comedy is your basic love story: Boy meets boy, boy finds out other boy is the son of the devil, but still a really nice guy — or is he? (It’s a pity Marvel Comics hasn’t revived its ’70s Son of Satan title for Aguirre-Sacasa to have his way with.) “The weirdest thing?” reports our bewitched and bewildered hero Andrew. “He’s a cuddler.”
David Ballog makes for a nicely conflicted, selfish, and self-conscious Everyman as Andrew, a Russian lit major who falls in with the original wrong crowd, and Eric Moore exudes self-assured charisma as his demon lover Jack. This time the cute blonde best friend is Bernadette, played by Courtney Greenlaw, a spunky and amiable presence if a little stiff in her delivery. Brian Erlich is amusingly intense as Jarrod, Andrew’s unbearably sweet not-boyfriend, though at times he doesn’t seem to know what to do with his hands. Ross Pasquale and John Atwood complete the cast as a legion of exes — well, only three exes between them, but when they’re a druidic cult leader, an archangel, and a self-involved actor aptly described as “worse than evil,” their name might as well be legion.
You don’t ask a lot of a campy romp like Say You Love Satan — just a few laughs, some good times, and maybe we’ll call it sometime. And happily, it keeps the snappy comebacks coming. It requires a tolerance for techno — the play is about young, gay, club-going guys after all — but suspending your disbelief and even indulging some uneven acting really isn’t much of a problem.
The dramatic resolution is sketchy at best; there’s no deep personal revelation at the heart of the play, and thankfully no biblical revelation either. And there are some structural problems: The end of the first act falls so flat, it feels as though it should have ended with the much stronger previous scene.
But packed with sly pokes at psychobabble, horror tropes, and real-life sex in the city, the script keeps raining zingers. Andrew’s singleton sidekick Bernadette belongs to seven different book clubs in her quest for a boyfriend: “If I have to read The Lovely fucking Bones one more time …” When she objects to him dating the devil’s son (as opposed to just using and losing him), Andrew clucks, “That’s such a label, Bernadette.” And finally she winds up getting the straight dope on her friend’s demonosexual plight in the grand tradition of exorcists through the ages: “I Googled Abaddon,” she says. Satanic comedy isn’t exactly virgin ground — few can resist a devilish laugh — so it’s impressive that Aguirre-Sacasa’s punch lines feel as fresh as they do.
Like Rocket Man, at root Say You Love Satan is just a comedy sketch blown up into a Like Rocket Man, at root Say You Love Satan is just a comedy sketch blown up into a play. What makes you so willing to forgive its sins, and what makes it so much damn fun, is that it never really pretends to be otherwise. You just have to go along wherever the devil drives, for the hell of it.