'Billboard' comes across as false advertising
Reviewed by Dan Solomon, Fri., May 18, 2012
BillboardSalvage Vanguard Theater, 2803 Manor Rd.
Through May 19
Running time: 1 hr., 40 min.
As high-concept setups for comedies go, Punchkin Repertory Theatre's Billboard gets off to a pretty good start: Andy (Jay McKinney), a twentysomething aspiring writer, receives a massive paycheck from an Apple-like company called Questa to tattoo its logo on his forehead. Misadventures – and a contemplation of our complicity in transforming ourselves into willing canvases for every company with an ad to sell (how many logos are you wearing right now?) – are sure to ensue, right?
Unfortunately, little in Punchkin's production delivers on the promise of Billboard's premise. The play is styled as a comedy, full of sitcomlike dialogue and setup/punch line interactions, but director Lizz Taylor sets the action at a languid pace that keeps the jokes from landing. Instead, we spend much of the evening watching a production rooted in an absurd premise, with characters we're not meant to like, that takes itself far too seriously to be much fun at all. Much of Billboard feels like it's meant to be a farce, but this production asks us to care about its characters in ways that it doesn't earn.
After Andy emblazons the Questa logo on his forehead (ostensibly a pair of headphones, though the sloppy application of the tattoo makes it look like a horseshoe), his girlfriend Katelyn (Ashley Rountree) and best pal Damon (Sam Watson) balk at the fact that he's now a walking billboard. That's a bummer for him –especially as Andy had planned to use the money he received to buy an engagement ring – and the play explores the trio's respective disappointments through flashbacks, monologues, and dream sequences.
If that sounds like the show wastes some of the potential to engage with the concepts at work – the ubiquity of advertising or our willingness to sell our bodies to any company who offers enough capital – well, that's because it does. Billboard too often treats Andy's tattoo as a MacGuffin, something relevant only insofar as it creates tension between him and his girlfriend.
That's a relationship we're not given a reason to care about. McKinney and Rountree are both likeable as directionless, postcollegiate types with vague artistic dreams (he's a writer, she's a painter) – although even in the flashbacks, it's never quite clear if or why Katelyn likes Andy – but the characters they portray are too selfish and entitled to resonate.
There's not much else to cling to in the play, which makes it hard not to feel like there's a bait-and-switch at work here. Billboard sets itself up to comment on matters that it barely touches on. Instead, it gives us a sloppy, slacker comedy in which boilerplate young people learn valuable lessons about life, love, and themselves in the new millennium. In the end, Billboard comes off like false advertising.