September 18, 2023
Review: Woke Satire Fails to Hit Targets
Joe Siegel READ TIME: 3 MIN.
"Pussy Hanukkah Comes To Harlem," from writer/director Lenny Schwartz, is an irreverent story about the end of the world.
It seems all humanity has become too "woke." No crime, no guns. We are told hate and intolerance were the fuel which kept Earth rotating. So, what can be done to make things right?
The president (Liz Parent) tasks her underlings with recruiting an exiled comedian to star in a play. Not just any comedian, but the infamous Buford (Dan Martin), who presumably will show us all how to be offensive again.
Buford is a walking mound of raging testosterone. He's crude, boorish, and completely off the wall. The President calls him a "dumb, uneducated savage." Sounds like he'd fit in really well with Donald Trump's base.
Playwright Dickson (Gordon Dell) creates the character of Pussy Hanukkah for Buford. The setting is Harlem because of its decadent qualities. As for referencing a Jewish holiday? I guess it sounds funnier than Pussy Christmas.
"Pussy Hanukkah Comes to Harlem" has an intriguing premise, but doesn't do enough with it. Instead of truly exploring whether or not "wokeness" has ruined our society, the characters engage in pop culture references. There's also an extended masturbation joke.
Schwartz also takes aim at the world of social media, which he believes gives people a platform to hate everything and everyone.
"We're complaining into a well with no bottom," one character notes. It's a perceptive observation, and a great line of dialogue.
There's a young actor named Johnny (Derek Laurendeau) who confesses his overwhelming consumption of internet content. He has his eyes fixated on his mobile phone and subscribes to multiple streaming services. Johnny just can't control himself. He has a need for constant stimulation.
"I'm an addict, and I live in a world of addicts," he says mournfully.
The performers plunge themselves gleefully into this madness.
Martin ("Dramatis Persona") gives a real tour de force here, exhibiting a zaniness and strength of personality that is fascinating to observe. He makes for an unlikely savior.
Dell, who has directed several shows for RISE, complements Martin perfectly. Dickson is arrogant enough to believe his writing can save the world. He is an embodiment of the self-importance of today's Hollywood celebrities.
Geoff White ("Bill Finger – Rise of the Bat") gives a deliciously camp performance as Terrance, a flamboyant director. White's best moment comes during an impassioned diatribe against focus groups. He claims they are "the death of vitality and originality."
Samantha Acampora and Tonia Klemp supply dependable comic support as Betty and Judy, top officials to the president.
Schwartz has dealt with social issues before in a masterful way. His "Dramatis Persona" was a spellbinding look at sexual assault and the ways people in the world of theater interacted with an abuser. "An American History of Guns" took on our country's love of firearms. I praised those productions for holding up a mirror to our darkest human impulses.
Internet addiction, the corrosive nature of social media, and the insidiousness of "cancel culture" are ripe subjects for exploration. If only Schwartz had dispensed with the in-jokes and some of the bawdiness and focused more on these subjects, this could have been a great play instead of merely an amusing one.
"Pussy Hanukkah Comes To Harlem" runs through September 23. Daydream Theatre in collaboration with Rhode Island Stage Ensemble. Performances at Beacon Charter High School, 320 Main St., Woonsocket, RI. Visit www.ristage.org for tickets.
Joe Siegel has written for a number of other GLBT publications, including In newsweekly and Options.