I can’t decide who was more of a letdown: SuttonBeresCuller, or the audience that laughed at and cheered their shallow, dull, adolescent, clichéd, dim-witted, feeble new work at the Northwest New Works Festival last night.
The piece started with John Sutton, wearing old-man makeup and sitting at a desk, pushing paper like your typical sad sack. In a video projected behind him, he strokes a Playboy centerfold hidden in his papers. The audience laughed at this, but they had been laughing since the moment his face appeared on the screen. The audience knew the guys, or knew of them, and were there to cheer. With friends like these, artists don’t need enemies.
Soon enough, the old man hobbles home. (On the way, two young guys wielding basketballs mock him.) He climbs into bed, and begins to dream his life as a young man, from his gleeful heel-clicking days with a chipper wide-eyed wife to the moment when everything falls apart, the moment when the word “ejaculation” is written on a chalkboard by a teacher in a twee nostalgia video from the 1950s. (Twee nostalgia videos—those black-and-white 1950s ads and PSAs sure are fun!—run throughout, interspliced with video of the man’s life.)
The gleeful young man (played by Damien Luvara) is not so gleeful after the cells do their compulsory joining up on the video screen to make a baby. So he goes to a bar and gets drunk. He dances with a vixen and gets in a fight. Finally, he goes home to his wife, who isn’t lovey dovey anymore. Now, she’s a wildly gesticulating shrew. (Everything Is Keeping The Man Down!) She and everybody else who’s ever been onstage (bartender, vixen, coworker, the doctor who delivered their old-faced oversized baby, the whole band “Awesome”) chase him back to his work desk, where the doctor, now demented, begins sawing him in half as the mob chants and a red light falls on the scene.
A bell rings and the mob freezes. This is because the old man, who is dreaming the mob, gets up to pee. It is a comedically halting pee because, you know, he’s old. Then he gets back in bed and the mob resumes. Then another bell rings. Time for the old man to get up. The actors shake off their personas and hug and high five and walk off. Another day starts for the old man.
The real nightmare is that every cutesy scene coasts by without being funny, unsettling, or sympathetic. One of the three would do.
It seems obvious that the mania of this piece is a release valve for the anxiety of three thirtyish guys getting older. And since they’re only going to keep getting older, if this is their way of getting older as artists, then they’re in trouble. It’s like Neil Simon on a bad day, with a little sex and some mouth-foaming thrown in. Are their fears really this generic? Or is it supposed to be transgressive the way they’re puncturing high art with bad jokes?
If it were a hoax, if there were any hint that this was intended as audience torture, then maybe you could at least appreciate their admitted haplessness in the face of an empty stage and a mountain of expectations. After all, the three artists have the hottest dealer in town. They have a storm of fans, including Regina Hackett, the art critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, who, as quoted in the program notes, compares them to Merce Cunningham, John Cage, and Morris Graves. Even typing the comparison makes me embarrassed. The point here is not that SBC are awful artists, it is that even when they make an awful work of art, nobody notices. When that happens, art in Seattle is in serious trouble.
Maybe the artists intended to pay tribute to strains in visual art, from the gory videos of Paul McCarthy to the costume dramas of Matthew Barney or the silly anarchy of dada theater. But the power of McCarthy’s work comes from his implicit aggression toward the audience; SBC’s piece was like a puppy alternating between licking the audience’s face and licking its own balls. There was one almost-success: the long-armed, boxing-gloved, foaming-at-the-mouth costume that Matt Richter wore as the main character’s tormentor. But the tormentor’s appearance at the moment of impregnation was so offensive that it was hard to care about his alluringly strange costume.
For those catching up: getting a girl pregnant is traumatic for boys.
But let’s put aside the retrograde politics, since they’re nauseating. Let’s just make a list of the clichés: Dream sequence device. Man in Gray Flannel Suit. Egg and sperm join on film. Married man flirts with vixen in a bar. Woman is at home waiting for her husband. Old men love Playboy. Old men’s bladders are funny. Jocks are bullies. Desk jobs are boring. Those are the first nine that come to mind.
Or maybe the references were in theater, film, and TV: David Lynch? Nihilist playwright Sarah Kane? Or even “There’s Something About Mary”? “Porky’s”? “Married With Children”? I’m trying here.
The truth is, despite all the cheering, nothing happened on that stage.