In the 1967 film Bedazzled, a biting British comedy with Peter Cook as the devil trying to trick Dudley Moore out of his soul, the devil laments, “I thought up the deadly sins in one afternoon. The only thing I’ve come up with lately is advertising.” This last substantial evil is what feeds Frothing Mad Man, the ad-man team — or split personality — that impels the play Only Fresh Lemons, being performed through May 31 at Planet Ant Theatre in Hamtramck. It’s the world premiere and first professional production by local writers Jack Griffith and Timothy Shores, and the two start off their mad-as-a-hatter sideshow by establishing an ethical contrast.
“A” (Dax Anderson) interviews the author (Keith Allan Kalinowski) of the book Grift Thy Neighbor, while Q. (John Maxwell) lies on the floor staring at the ceiling. The author asserts how the trusting “Can I borrow some eggs?” society of yesterday has mutated into an age of disposable fellowship, and that advertising is the movement responsible for pushing people away from whom they are.
After listening to the evils multiplied by this deceptive social cancer, “A” realizes there’s cash to be had in the business where truth sits in the back row, so he boldly dives over the fine line between persuasion and manipulation, pulling Q. with him. Finally, the two know what they want to do — breed dissatisfaction in order to sell that which can never fill the shoes of the fairytale users — but where do you start? With the name Frothing Mad Man, of course.
Frothing Mad Man’s first mental frenzy exploits a primal public fear with a “maybe” truth, that the average human being swallows eight spiders a year. The two volley ideas back and forth along an insane train of thought that’s so absurd, it just could work, at least onstage. Pretty soon imaginary ants are dancing around the edge of an infant-filled crib and parental guilt is paying the bills.
The play’s double- and (sometimes) triple-talking, three-headed ensemble knows its stuff. “A” is the froth of Frothing Mad Man; Q. is the grounded straight man with a smirk. They thrash about the stage and cook up a refreshing air that mingles desperation and an all-nighter high with Kalinowski playing every hungry client.
“A” tells Q., “People don’t think for themselves unless they’re tricked into thinking they can.”
They take that callous misanthropy and squeeze it into cold and crisp cash with wacky plans around “Kosher contact solution” and renaming the Crayola crayon colors in light of our times: Southern Baptist White, I love you but I’m not in love with you Blue, etc.
Eventually, Frothing Mad Man’s creative purging leads them to the top of the image-making chain, and the government approaches them for their services because, “We don’t want patriotism to be the last refuge for the scoundrel.” It’s goofy, red-white-and-blue, terrifying and apropos, considering our scary real-life, American Wag the Dog, political scenario.
However, their successful selling streak undergoes a solemn turn when “A” takes an advertising scheme too far for even Q. to deal with, triggering the difficult birth of “A”’s newfound morality. His path there is as convoluted as the illogical reasoning behind all of Frothing Mad Man’s advertising capers. And although the method of fractured ideology is great fodder for humor, when things get serious, “A”’s grave epiphany falls dramatically dead beside the stage. It’s one of several spots in the play that could use dialogue pruning and maybe even a little direction tweaking.
In the end, “A” laments at length how they confused being raw with being real while proffering the illusion of depth. The same can be said of the play itself, frothing all over the stage with raw energy and its hot-air whirlwind of insane segues touching upon sane truths here and there, but never really saying or holding onto anything substantially moving.
Or does it have to? Like an advertisement, whether or not the product actually does what it promises doesn’t really matter once you’ve bought it. The trick lies in catching the attention of the suckers long enough to have them buy it.
Only Fresh Lemons’ soulless goal is to sell the shameless act of selling. And despite it needing a nip and tuck, I’m sold.
Only Fresh Lemons by Jack Griffith and Timothy Shores is at Planet Ant Theatre (2357 Caniff Ave., Hamtramck) through May 31, Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. For reservations, call 313-365-4948, ext. 1 or visit www.planetanttheatre.com.Anita Schmaltz writes about theater for the Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]