In today's linguistic marketplace, many catchphrases stay in syndication longer than the TV shows that gave rise to them. Philologists of the 22nd century will surely trace many roots of our future-speak back to Seinfeld: "soup Nazi," "Festivus," "yadda yadda yadda," and the infamous if ever-popular "master of my own domain" have already attained a wide and legitimate cultural currency. Watch out, because Mat Smart's new comedy, The Debate Plays, may have coined a new slang term that has similar resonance: "a Luigi." What—or, rather, who—is "a Luigi?" you may ask. A "Luigi" is the safe, nice, stable, and generally boring guy a girl dates after she's had a tempestuous long-term relationship with a reckless, selfish, neurotic, and interesting Super Mario. A Luigi is definitely "Player Two." The term is revealing not only in how it defines a certain generation but also in the values that it implies this generation holds.
In dealing with three generations in the life of the same town, The Debate Plays consists of three interrelated one-acts revolving around a love triangle and an obscure Nebraska law that allows the man who took a woman's virginity to challenge her new lover to a debate. The first one-act pits Scott "Scooner" Hooner, the pill-popping slacker who sells suits at the local mall, against James Hamilton, the considerate if somewhat corny and bland M.B.A. grad who makes a six-figure salary, for the love of one Courtney O'Connell.
The stuffy formality of the debate format soon explodes into the absurdly manic, no-holds-barred question-and-answer duel of wits between James and Scooner. After Courtney goes mad and shrieks "Mayday!" at the end of a crazed monologue in which she fails to decide a winner, she appeals directly to the audience for help. The audience then votes for whom they think she should date. The night I attended, the audience surprisingly chose James in a landslide. The cast later told me, however, that Scooner usually dominates but James has an edge if there is an older crowd.
The next one-act takes us back more than 100 years to the Wild West to show us how the law originated when a love triangle resulted in a bloody shootout that killed over a dozen people. The characters dress in drag—the men in big hoop skirts and the woman in bowler hat and handlebar mustache. But the real zaniness ensues when the shootout occurs in slow motion to the 12-minute rock anthem "Only in Dreams" by Weezer (choreographed by director Evan Cabnet). The characters lip-sync the lyrics in between their stylized, trigger-happy death agonies, to hilarious results. In fact, during the instrumental bridge they all break out of character to jam on air instruments.
The last one-act takes us into a future where the 29th Amendment guarantees our right to privacy in consensual sexual relations between persons of legal age. The exact nature of the play depends on who won the vote earlier, but both scenarios involve a distant relative of the loser coming back to confront the law, the town, and the aged Courtney herself.
The whole night is a wildly entertaining, fun romp. My only suggestion would be that the play needs a new title if it's not going to scare away the hip, younger crowd it targets. Part of what makes the night fun is the intimacy of the setting: the traditional theater seats in the black-box space are roped off, and the audience sits at small tables on the traditional stage area as if we're at a dinner theater. Except, since a bartender fetches drinks between acts—and the weekend performances don't begin until 10:30—it's more like "drink theater."
As the cast developed a casual ease with its audience, the acting became increasingly spunky—as if the audience and cast were speaking in the shorthand and in-jokes of old college buddies. Jeff Galfer had loads of off-kilter charm as Scooner and executed his bitter rants with loving relish. He was even funnier when he playfully deconstructed the Western belle in drag. Though Garrett Neergaard played the bland "Luigi," he nonetheless managed to imbue his character with a soft-spoken sincerity whose very corniness can be endearing.
Chad Goodridge, in a variety of supporting roles, superbly punched his jokes. Meanwhile, Kathleen White, with a glint in her eye and a gruff slur to her voice, brought a quirky, cartoonish quality of camp farce to her role as the gunslinging Amos Morgan.
If this play is any evidence, the current twenty-something generation has a great deal of anxiety about how it will change or conform to a corporatized world. More self-conscious about demographic packaging, politically correct attitudinizing, and multicultural posturing than any previous generation, their most frequent defense mechanism against their individual powerlessness is to make fun of the powers that be. If only all of their jokes could be as funny as The Debate Plays.