Mom, Iran, and Barbie

When Something Wonderful Ends is an off-key swan song for Playhouse West.

Lois Grandi could hardly have picked a better-named play to serve as a swan song for Playhouse West, the Walnut Creek theater company she founded and directed almost every production of the past thirteen years.

She could, however, have picked a better play than When Something Wonderful Ends, Sherry Kramer’s one-woman show about Barbie accessories, 9/11, the death of her mother, the Iran Hostage Crisis, growing up Jewish in the Bible Belt, and US oil policy. That’s a whole lot of ground to cover in ninety minutes without intermission, and the Kramer character does it by leaping back and forth between the three topics constantly with the thinnest of transitions: “Barbie had a little hit-and-run,” she says, looking at her Barbie Dream Car. “Our country did, too.”

Despite how many times the phrase “when something wonderful ends” is repeated at the beginning and end of the show, ultimately, understanding exactly what this something wonderful is that’s ending gets lost amid all the leaps from subject to subject. We’re told the exact date that was “the start of the end of something wonderful”: March 4, 1964, when ten-year-old Kramer got her mother to buy her Barbie’s Enchanted Evening dress. That same day in Iran, Kramer says, the Status of Forces Agreement was signed, making US soldiers in Iran immune from domestic prosecution for offenses such as running over Iranians, which seems to have happened with alarming frequency, giving the up-and-coming Ayatollah Khomeini ample fuel for eventual revolution. This set off a chain of events that would eventually lead to the Iran Hostage Crisis, 9/11, and the war in Iraq, and possibly the death of Kramer’s mother. The connections between the geopolitical and the personal in this piece aren’t at all clear.

It’s not that there isn’t an obvious connection to be made between American foreign oil policies and little petroleum-based Barbie and the ideal of American consumerism that she embodies, but Kramer doesn’t do so with any coherence, and the stuff about her mother never really ties in at all. These things are definitely connected in Kramer’s head, but she does a lousy job of explaining why.

It’s tempting to think that maybe Kramer does a better job explaining these things herself, and that the script loses something without her personality in performance to back it up. In fact that may be true, but that’s not how the public life of the play has been conducted. There was an actress in the Kramer role when the play debuted a year ago at the Humana Festival in Louisville, Kentucky, and another one in the run at Actor’s Express in Atlanta that just ended last weekend, overlapping with Playhouse West’s production.

“Don’t worry, I’ve always been this way,” the Kramer character says while warming to some point she’s trying to make. What way, exactly? We can tell she’s trying to get through to us with a very important message, but it gets lost in the telling. Well, except the part about how the entire American economy and consumer society is built on a foundation of oil that’s going to collapse entirely any day now. If she’d focused on that — if she’d focused at all — Kramer might have had something.

Although Kramer’s in her childhood bedroom packing up her parents’ house and putting her Barbie outfits on eBay, there’s no in-story excuse for her to be talking to the audience. The style of the piece is half lecture, half standup act reeking of flop sweat.

Director Grandi and actor Janis Bergmann gamely proceed as if the play is funny and poignant and all of the things that it seems to aspire to be. It’s not their fault that it’s not, aside from Grandi picking the show in the first place as a last-minute replacement for the previously announced season closer, Morris Panych’s Girl in the Goldfish Bowl. Jan Zimmerman’s delightful set is of a little girl’s very, very pink bedroom filled with nothing but old Barbies and their accessories. Above are projections of chapter titles (“The Which Then,” “God 2.0”) or a slideshow of cemetery bouquets.

Bergmann’s an animated, likeable presence, gesturing a lot with her hands and giving a little smirk and slight cough of a laugh at what’s supposed to be the funny parts, which are often written as if addressing a lively audience while the real audience sits in polite silence. Take this zinger about jihadists being rewarded with 72 virgins in the afterlife: “Has anybody else noticed that this Islamic heaven is a weekend at a pedophilia convention in Morocco? No? No one’s noticed this? I guess it’s just me.” Yeah, Kramer, I guess it is.

If Playhouse West had to call it a day after enlivening Walnut Creek’s theater landscape since 1995, it would be nice if it was going out with a better show than this. But when something wonderful ends, it can’t always end wonderfully.

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