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Theater Review: Reddin's "Standard of Living"

(c) New York Times

November 14, 1986

By Frank Rich

IT'S impossible to talk about Keith Reddin without making him sound like just the young writer that the American theater is always seeking but almost never finds. In his three full-length plays seen in New York - "Life and Limb," "Rum and Coke" and now, at Playwrights Horizons, "Highest Standard of Living" - Mr. Reddin has shown no hesitation about tackling what used to be called "the big issues." Yet as a sometime actor, he has the theatrical wisdom to avoid the documentary agitprop style that makes most American political theater a dreary chore. People hallucinate in Mr. Reddin's comedies, and from their dreams rise socio-cultural-political connections. Before David Lynch directed the film "Blue Velvet" or the critic Thomas Hine coined the term "populuxe" to describe the social implications of 1950's kitsch, Mr. Reddin, in "Life and Limb," was peeking behind the "I Love Lucy" sunniness of booming, Eisenhower-era America to disinter the buried bodies, filthy secrets and official malfeasance of the new cold war consumer state.

With a writer of Mr. Reddin's high and rare ambitions, one is sorely tempted to ignore the infelicities of the actual achievements. The temptation was somewhat resistible, however, in "Rum and Coke" - a sporadically amusing play that reacted to the Bay of Pigs invasion with such gee-whiz innocence that Mr. Reddin seemed to be writing as if he, in 1985, were the first to expose the 1961 C.I.A. debacle. The elaborate "Highest Standard of Living," I'm afraid, is a depressing step backward from "Rum and Coke." While by no means forsaking his usual theatrical sophistication - however archly he now tends to call attention to it - Mr. Reddin has written an unfunny and unenlightening work dedicated to the proposition that the United States and the Soviet Union are "not so different, once you get past the propaganda."

Even if the theme of "Highest Standard" were less fatuous, it would still be tedious, as executed so didactically here. As usual, Mr. Reddin's hero is a neo-Jimmy Stewart innocent from Morristown, N.J. - in this case, Bob (Steven Culp), a Columbia doctoral candidate studying the explosive, post-revolutionary Russian theater that bloomed prior to Stalin's crackdown on artistic freedom in the mid-1930's. In Act I, Bob travels to Moscow University to do research for his thesis. In Act II, he returns to New York. In both cities, he endures bizarre adventures and "accidents" -inexplicable violence, romance, apparitional visitations - that may or may not be nightmares.

Mr. Reddin's intriguing concept is to write his first act in partial emulation of the fantastic Russian writers Bob admires - Bulgakov, Babel, Mayakovsky and the like. The second act attempts to wed this style to that of Hollywood's hallucinatory, paranoid thrillers. But the feverish dream incidents of Act I are too prosaic to levitate in the Russian manner: What keeps the Moscow scenes afloat at all are small culture-clash gags reminiscent of "Ninotchka" and "One Two Three." While no Billy Wilder, Mr. Reddin does inspire laughter when a Soviet ideologue is nonplused by Bob's insistence on agreeing with his diatribes against Ronald Reagan. Such humor vanishes entirely in Act II, during an endless series of spooky shenanigans that fail to capture the terror or suspense of such cinematic antecedents as "The Manchurian Candidate" or "The Parallax View."

Both acts are heavily freighted by the author's insistence on drawing literal-minded parallels between two societies that, in his view, are built on "control" rather than "trust." Hence, propagandistic Lenin posters in Act I's Moscow are matched with hard-sell Madison Avenue billboards and Statue of Liberty iconography in Act II's New York; the K.G.B.'s big-brother tactics are laboriously equated with the C.I.A.'s computerized surveillance and dirty tricks; Manhattan's consumerism, random violence and cramped apartments are compared to Moscow's, and so on and on. By the end, Mr. Reddin even likens the Communist youth organization to the conformity of American preppies, cub scouts and punk-rock fans.

Whatever insights might lurk in "Highest Standard" are lost in the over-generalizing: The play's simplistic comparisons are the stuff of B-plus undergraduate, not doctoral, papers, and the production, staged by the usually fleet Don Scardino, hammers in the false analogies even harder. The inventive set designer John Arnone, who might have had fun exploiting Mr. Reddin's fascination with futurism and constructivism, instead must provide red-brick Stalinist realism to uphold the point that Moscow and New York look interchangeably grim. The theme is gratuitously reinforced by Mr. Scardino's ubiquitous dancing stagehands - burlesque Bolsheviks out of "Silk Stockings" for Act I, trench-coated C.I.A. agents for Act II.

The acting, by a large cast doubling and tripling in roles, is also overemphatic, with the lovely exception of Leslie Lyles as a Soviet doctor who delivers Mr. Reddin's one memorable speech, on paranoia, shortly after boogeying Russian-style to Aretha Franklin's "Respect." As the clean-cut protagonist, Mr. Culp gets no funnier as his Kafkaesque torments increase - merely shriller. Bob is constantly shocked to discover that a police state can happen here, and Mr. Culp conveys this hysteria by yelling his way through the entire second act.

But the real question raised by "Highest Standard of Living" is why the author, for all his worldly cultural awareness, is himself so shocked and half-informed about the Orwellian facts of 20th-century life. If Mr. Reddin is to help write the future of American political theater, his advanced artistic ideas cannot be chained to the naive regurgitation of yesterday's news. Transparent Curtain.

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