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American Century Theater Visit to a Small Planet

By • Jul 10th, 2011 • Category: Reviews
Visit to a Small Planet by Gore Vidal
American Century Theater
Gunston Arts Center Theatre Two
Through August 6th
2:15 with two intermissions
$27-$35
Reviewed July 9th, 2011

Kreton is going around claiming that “war is the one thing (we earthlings) are good at.” Come on, buddy, that isn’t true.

Anyway — Kreton comes from another, totally pacific, “Dimension” to join in our bellicose pastime. But the Civil War is long over. Kreton miscalculates. He hoped to dabble in our Battle of Bull Run. However, his UFO lands in Manassas, VA, in 1958.

Realizing that a Cold War is raging, Kreton choses to make lemonade out of a lemon. He uses his amazing mind powers to turn up the heat on the Cold War.

Using his amazing satirical powers, in 1957 Gore Vidal wrote a play based on the above premise. That play is called Visit to a Small Planet. And it holds up very well today — as the current American Century Theater production demonstrates. We may not be exactly good at war. But we keep at it, even multi-tasking — as our current efforts in the middle east demonstrate.

Vidal wrote Visit first as a Goodyear TV Playhouse comedy. Then he turned it into a Broadway show. (He disavowed the 1960 Jerry Lewis movie. Vidal’s original versions relied on fantasy and exaggeration. But the movie was a ludicrous farce.)

ACT director Rip Claasen cultivates exaggeration. He does it well. He and his actors keep it under control, however, and the result is satisfying. I saw the show the evening after opening night. The cast must have been at least a bit tired. But they zipped along at a brisk comedy clip.

Bruce Allen Rauscher plays Kreton as a giddy, childish, irresponsible trifler who apparently, when he dialed up “English Language Skills” out in his dimension, clicked on “British” rather than “Virginian.” The accent gives Kreton a vaguely foreign aspect.

But Kreton is not your typical tourist. For him, humanity is merely a “hobby.” As we deduce at first, and later confirm, he is a bit on the mentally disabled side in comparison with his peers. As far as morality and empathy are concerned, he is severely challenged. His society has abolished passion (as well as death — no need for reproduction). But Kreton, like many a human war dabbler, has this aberrant enthusiasm for vicarious thrills. He treats earthlings as if they were characters in a particularly crazed and violent video game. For fun he has taken over the game’s controls. Rauscher finds the right comic hyperactive, ethically defective tone for Kreton (pronounced like “cretin.”) He bounces around Micah Stromberg’s genteel suburban 1950s setting as if he were in a deluxe Toys-R-Us playpen.)

The genteel home belongs to the Spelding family. Roger is a TV talking head. His wife Reba is a frustrated home maker. Daughter Ellen, a Bryn Mawr College student of art appreciation, is intent on finding herself. Under Kreton’s tutelage she discovers amazing and world-saving psychic power. Her boyfriend Conrad is that rare 50s creature, a pacifist. He is a walnut farmer. He is passionately eager to consummate his relation with Ellen.

Steve Lebens as Roger, Kelly Cronenberg as Reba, Megan Graves as Ellen and Noah Bird as Conrad work the satirical angles of their parts without making their characters ridiculous. They are fun to watch. Also fun to watch is John Tweel as General Tom Powers, a Pentagon corner office guy in charge of, yes, laundry logistics. He has somehow been detailed, via bureaucratic machinations, into taking charge of this UFO incident. Tweel starts as a martinet, eager to make this his big wartime chance for advancement to brigadier status. He ends up as a woebegone weeper, realizing that the majesty of the American military machine is nothing compared to the frightening peace powers of Kreton’s Dimension nemesis, Delton 4.

For, lo, another extraterrestrial arrives in suburban Manassas to take Kreton in hand. I only mention this because Tamra Lynn Testerman plays Delton 4 as an amusingly stern but essentially kind disciplinarian. But enough about that. No need to spoil Vidal’s clever denouement.

For, as you probably know, Vidal really is immensely clever. He has demonstrated his genius in the hundreds of plays, novels, broadcast commentaries and essays over the years — most of them pointing out that people, American people in particular, are no better than they ought to be.

And think of it. How many things do you have that were made in the 1950s that are still useful? Right, not many. But Visit to a Small Planet will be useful as long as people, American people in particular, keep throwing themselves into wars.

Director’s Notes

My love affair with Visit to a Small Planet began back in the summer of 1976 when this then 14-year-old theatre geek discovered the script at the Post Library. Now in 2010 I finally get to direct it at the age of 29. Hey, no doing the math!

What has always drawn me to this script is how honestly it pokes fun at our society. Over fifty years after it was originally presented, it is still as fresh as ever. The show started a movement of spacemen as commentators on our society-My Favorite Martian, Mork and Mindy, Third Rock from the Sun, some Star Trek episodes, and Dr. Who all owe Visit a debt. Mr. Vidal gives us a peek at ourselves that as well as being funny is thought provoking.

Please join me and the Spelding family for a visit….

Rip Claassen, Director

Cast

  • General Tom Powers: John Tweel
  • Roger Spelding: Steve Lebens
  • Reba Spelding: Kelly Cronenberg
  • Ellen Spelding: Megan Graves
  • Conrad Mayberry: Noah Bird
  • Kreton: Bruce Alan Rauscher
  • Aide: Brendan A. Haley
  • Technician 1: Kecia A. Campbell
  • Technician 2: Peter Louis Johnson
  • Delton 4: Tamra Lynn Testerman

Crew

  • Director: Rip Claassen
  • Producer: Genie Baskir
  • Stage Manager: Charles Dragonette
  • Sound design: Ed Moser
  • Set Design: Noel Greer
  • Lighting Design: Micah Stromberg
  • Costume Design: Rosalie Ferris
  • Properties Design: Ceci Albert
  • Assistant Stage Manager: G.W. Glover
  • Carpenter: Robert Cunningham
  • Scenic Charge Artist: Christian Hershey
  • Scenic Painter: Laura Koons
  • Wardrobe Mistress: Chanukah Jane Liburne
  • Sound Board Operator: Christopher Beatley
  • Stagehand: Geoffrey Baskir
  • House Managers: Joli Provost and Eric Rutkin
  • Marketing Manager: Emily Love Morrison
  • Marketing Intern: Jessie Cline
  • Production Photography: Dennis Deloria
  • Program Design and Cover Art: Michael Sherman

Disclaimer: American Century Theater provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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lives in Arlington with his wife, daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren. Before retiring last year at age 70, he was theater critic at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for 27 years. Prior to that, he reviewed plays for the Philadelphia Bulletin, the Texas Observer and the Swarthmore College Phoenix. Non-reviewing journalistic jobs include writing for the Houston Chronicle, the San Juan (Puerto Rico) Star and El Mundo de San Juan. Think about it: most of the papers he worked for no longer exist. Maybe this internet gig has better longevity prospects.

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