I’ve never been much of a smoker. My father was. My brother too. Both of my sisters. I tried it, of course. As a student in France I indulged as everyone did. We cultivated the French-student stereotype by sitting in cafes with a demi tasse in one hand and a Gitane in the other, ruminating on Proust and Sartre as best we could. Yet, at the end of the day I’m a very take-it-or-leave-it kind of guy where the magical mist is concerned.
I had the same attitude towards director Andy Sandberg’s The Last Smoker in America. While there was talent enough on stage to warrant an ‘OMG!,’ the material itself produced occasional bouts of ‘WTF?’
Set in the future (“Time: Tomorrow”), Pam (the wonderful Farah Alvin, whose adorable physicality is akin to a plush toy come to life), is the last smoker in America living in a new-age USA where tobacco-love has been outlawed and punishment for criminals is increased in severity daily via updated national laws and bills. She is surrounded by her unemployed wannabe rock star husband, Ernie (John Bolton), video game-obsessed, medicated son, Jimmy (Jake Boyd), who wants to be a black rapper, and their smoker-turned-religious-
Pam wants to smoke because it makes her ‘happy.’ She tries to assert her rights in the face of her ensemble, who are wrestling with their own substituted addictions. Pam discovers her husband and neighbor having an affair, and this gives her the out she needs to abandon her family for a life as fugitive smoker-cum-resistance fighter. She returns to claim her family. Her husband rejects her and leaves. Phyllis kills everyone except Ernie, including herself. Ernie’s rock star dreams come true as he performs an ode in concert to the three he lost in the ‘smoking wars.’
By rights, this four person musical comedy should be a success, given the considerable skill of all those involved. It certainly has sparks of brilliance and courage: the incorporation, for example, of hip hop, gospel, 40s tunes, rock and roll and more into the musical mix, which, despite speaking to a confusing inconsistency in style, serves to showcase the cast’s undeniable and considerable talent.
What’s more, the subject matter is timely and discussion worthy. With the current depressed state of the economy and the world, where it looks increasingly as if hope is, in fact, for want of a better expression, blowing smoke up our backsides, it makes for an interesting commentary. No surprise when you consider its author, Bill Russell, also wrote the seminal Side Show, about two Siamese twin sisters elevated from carnival attraction to stardom and how they dealt with the struggle for acceptance.
The Last Smoker in America is poised to start a valid debate about what constitutes ‘difference’ today. The government is increasingly trying to control our desires (because we can’t be trusted to control ourselves?) and the show takes this tendency to its logical conclusion, depicting electronic in-home government security devices that, in conjunction with neighbourhood patrolling ‘smokebots’, monitor the population for smoking and, in the end, overeating.
Like Side Show, The Last Smoker in America focuses on the topic of yearning to be accepted for your shortcomings. Out of the four, Pam, who accepts and loves her addiction, is the only one to ask why should she be forced to give up something that makes her ‘happy’?
Yet where Side Show dealt with the human desire to belong, because basically we’re all the same despite our circumstances, even if they include being physically conjoined to your sibling – an impediment that is beyond your control – this is ultimately where The Last Smoker falls short. Yes, substance abuse means your body doesn’t have control over its physical dependency on a drug, but addiction is initiated with a choice. Smoking is not what Pam is, it’s what she enjoys. When Ernie keeps saying if Pam really loved him she would give up she seems to see this a violation of her moral rights and it’s shown in her clearly reluctant agreement.
All the characters are dealing with being told what they like to do is wrong but that’s because, at the end of the day, it is. Smoking causes disease; committing adultery goes against the commitment you made to your wife; wanting to change everything about yourself physically and mentally means you’ve probably got issues; and forcibly converting people to your way of thinking on pain of death is dictatorial and abusive. The production doesn’t fully acknowledge this distinction.
This is not the only misfire. For example, Jimmy’s enactment of a black rapper spraying the ‘N’ word around is hilarious, ridiculous in its incongruity, but the laughter that resulted was increasingly nervous and awkward. At least this attempt at comic relief had some bearing on the plot and Jimmy’s desire to be a black rapper. Other would be comic moment come completely out of left field, like Ernie’s sudden use of Riverdancing to control his anger. Or his use of Pam cooking spray on Phyllis at the culmination of their heated musical flirtation.
Similarly, Phyllis’s exit scene was a write-out unworthy of Belcon’s talent. Seemingly designed to show us the danger that denial of one’s true self can bring, she is shown descending into madness and muttering to God who gives her instructions to ‘kill all infidels’ – this she does by blowing everyone up.
It’s billed as an ‘unfiltered comedy’ and this is a fairly apt description. This is a play that throws everything at you. The music was often unmemorable and the writing just felt confused. A bit of filtering would have reaped dividends.