Mechanical pleasures 

In the ’40s, when things were swell, when Velveeta and Spam were futuristic miracle foods, things were more black and white, and films were filled with quick-cracking witty dialogue that kept your mind off the boys overseas. And women, who knew their place, gladly gave up their happy homemaking to replace GIs in wartime factories. It was a time when America’s gentler sex tasted the pleasures of occupational independence, which may have empowered some women to venture into other uncharted, man-less territories.

Cheat, a play written by Wayne State University theater graduate Julie Jensen, is framed by women, war and Dearborn. Before the Detroit Repertory Theatre’s red-velvet curtain is drawn, perky period radio bites and songs fill the theater. “There’s something true about her, red, white and blue about her. ...”

Like the song says, Rosie the Riveter was the all-American ’40s female icon, created to lure women away from the home by appealing to their sense of self-sacrifice and patriotism, which were in, and by glamorizing assembly line work. But don’t strain your neck looking for any glamour in Cheat. Stark surroundings, à la Alcatraz, rationing of commodities such as gas and sugar, and periodic waves of unnerving sound cloak the play with impending menace, and magnify the women’s underlying fear of caskets returning home instead of breathing loved ones.

On lunch break, Roxy (Leah Smith) spits in a bucket, then opens a black lunchbox like a disappointed Pandora. That is, until Reva (Manna Hashi) walks in. They share lunch and stiff, cryptic conversation that lets us know there’s an unpleasant history between them, and it has something to do with Reva’s son — and Roxy’s ex — Sonny. Little by little, we piece together that Roxy had to marry D-Dubb (David Regal); Sonny enlisted after witnessing something disturbing; and despite the facts that Reva is black, twice her age and a woman, she and a very young, white Roxy are much more intimate than conventions of the time allow.

Jensen has the setup for an intriguing, tight-lipped scenario to uncoil into an emotional tumult tangled within crossing cultures, carnal desires and the deadly byproducts of war, but don’t hold your breath. Cheat’s peaks are as about as exciting as watching a Slinky flop down the stairs, for the third time. Instead of exploring the setup, it rides the surface, as characters who are never more than World War II-dimensional spout generic dialogue. The audience is left hanging onto lines like “… of all the gin joints” and “Come back Rhett Butler!”; the characters spend most of their time trying to avoid distasteful subjects.

Before Roxy and D-Dubb get into dialogue with any depth, they nervously turn to their neurotic habits of ironing and joking. They immediately morph into a cartoony marriage of extremes between a comedian and a tragedian. And although Regal is always a joy to watch, with his spectrum of big-lovable-oaf nuances, and Smith simmers and wells with “let’s not talk right now” miserable malaise, they never connect and don’t really change. And neither do we.

When it comes to working girl tête-à-têtes, Smith and Hashi should be applauded for keeping their cool as cell phones and crackling candy wrappers drowned out their dialogue (how disrespectful). However, between Hashi’s deadpan, cold-shoulder tone and Smith’s rough-edged presence, their sensual rapport never clicks, further wounding a sad, war-torn script.

Granted, the odds are against them. Jensen’s play never addresses the question of why this young white girl and this older black woman would take such social gambles, crossing age, gender and race barriers. When Roxy play-acts with Reva in the basement, ultimately wooing her with a fake French accent, it doesn’t come off as the endearing act of a young girl empowered by the independence of well-paid work. It’s more like a bipolar, delusional mask covering any insights into human nature that might have slipped through the cracks of the war.

I’m beginning to wonder if Detroit Rep’s only criterion for picking a play is parts for a multi-racial cast, which in and of itself doesn’t make for engaging theater. Cheat is a play with no epiphanies, no revelations and only a handful of secrets unveiled. It’s vacant and watery, generic and confused, with no titillating moments of forbidden bounty, just a couple of “oh no!”s. It speaks and moves without a soul, like an assembly-line machine, cheating both actors and audience from experiencing something alive.

Anita Schmaltz writes about theater for Metro Times. E-mail

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