Some background: Two years ago, a theater company called Black Sheep Productions arrived out of nowhere with a play called “Another Day in the Empire,” a seething, hilarious takedown of middle-class suburbia and a consumer culture gone mad. The word prescient gets thrown around a lot, but in this case it’s legit.
Playwright Steve Spencer’s jab at pre-economic-freakout America—high on the crack that is flat-screen TVs and a mortgage you probably can’t afford—worked because he had the confidence to pace things just so, and he filled it with the kind of bitter-hilarious dialogue that should be engraved on a plaque and handed out to every douchebag in America. Great stuff. I had—still have—a crush on this play, which received a punchy, bang-on-the-money production from director Vance Smith.
The whole gang—playwright, director and theater company—are back again with a new play that sails similar waters. But formatively, “Camp Freedom” is something different altogether—a cartoon in the key of “Dr. Strangelove”—and it’s exasperating to watch.
Sure, “Empire” was a soapbox screed dressed up as entertainment. But it had major style and wit, and it always felt believable. Spencer pulled no punches, but he wasn’t indulgent. The play was pissed-off and cynical, and intelligently so.
This time around, Spencer envisions a nation collapsed in on itself thanks to an overzealous Department of Homeland Security and a non-existent economy. Bouncing a check will get you sent to an interment camp: “Billions of years of evolution have led to accounts payable.” A guy is arrested after an agent shows him a photo taken at a rally: “I didn’t know it was a protest,” he says. “I thought I was in line for the liquor store.”
Dick Cheney runs the joint and his preferred method of torture is prolonged viewings of Nick at Nite. “To lessen our environmental footprint,” he says, “no food.” When he prays, it goes something like this: “Oh sweet Republican Jesus, thank you for my power.” This is a good example of Spencer’s brand of rantiness—the carbon-footprint joke lands just about right, whereas the Cheney stuff is overkill.
Eventually, a small group of prisoners band together and expose the camp as a sham. Or something like that. “Up yours, society, you can keep your paperwork!” goes one Spencer-flavored kiss-off. You get his point—life would be a lot sweeter if we all got off the treadmill and lived off the land a little—but he might as well have a bullhorn at your ear. It’s like intellectual indigestion. Where’s the fun in that?
Here’s the thing: “Another Day in the Empire” was so good, as far as I’m concerned Spencer has earned a gimme. Let’s agree to write this one off and hope he can get back to fighting form. I’m a believer. (Nina Metz)
At the Athenaeum, 2936 N. Southport, (312)902-1500 or ticketmaster.com. Thu-Sat 8p, Sun 3p. $20. Through April 19.