The Austin Chronicle

In Person

'WASP' at the Off Center, Saturday, May 17

By Shawn Badgley, May 23, 2003, Books

It was clear that they couldn't wait. Seated neatly around the dinner table stage-left in the dark, hands folded, barely discernible smiles occasionally sneaking around their mouths, Alex Pippard, Sally Dee, Conor Reed, and Tiffany Conner -- BookPeople employees, each one -- were likely nervous in the face of a capacity Off Center crowd, this being their first (and possibly last, though I hope not) performance as a BookPeople ensemble, after all. But just as likely was their faith in Steve Martin's absurdist, subversive 1994 one-act, WASP, whose literate script and demand for melodrama, not to mention the brisk but steady pace and barrage of memorable Martinisms -- from one-liners to fourth-wall-wrecking-ball extended monologues -- form the perfect play for a handful of young, intelligent day-jobbing booksellers apparently scratching their theatrical itch. I say apparently because I have no idea how varied their stage experience has been or how seriously they took this (quite, judging by their serious execution onstage). Pippard, for instance, possesses a magnificent gift for bombast in his portrayal of Jim, the neo-fascist, adulterous, golf-obsessed head of a stagnant Fifties American family, and he could easily be a veteran. Dee, on the other hand, as stifled housewife Diane, is a shy, at times shaky player, but her natural grace and instant empathy are a quiet force. Reed and Conner are capable and playful as the doomed, delusional offspring (the son speaks with the Premier of Lepton of "the vision" from his bedside, while the daughter looks forward to birthing and later marrying the second coming of Jesus Christ) of their doomed, delusional parents (both converse with audible "voices," Diane going as far as to have tea with hers). All are enthusiastic, which I write with zero parts condescension and every part admiration. Producer/director Lindsey Moore, who was spending her last night in Austin before moving to New York to study -- you guessed it -- theatre, wisely envisioned Martin's work much like many before her have: with restraint. The man is a genius, for starters, and the considerable success of WASP as a play put on by anyone, anywhere comes from his trademark ambidextrous handling of the physical and cerebral: Jim passionately kisses a worried Diane through his evening paper ("I'm here for you," he assures her); Jim buys a coveted bicycle for his son after the latter agrees to build, by himself, a seven-story building on his father's newly acquired downtown lot; and Diane and the children affect British accents and treat themselves to butler-served Wheatabix on Christmas morning after Jim leaves for a round of 18. This, of course, is after dear old dad quizzes them on the Ten Commandments as a traditional holiday festivity. "Don't change horses in midstream!" someone volunteers. "Yes!" Jim hastily agrees. "If you start as one thing, don't end up as another. People don't like it." Nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to Martin, and nothing could be further from the truth when it came to the BookPeople cast and crew on Saturday night.

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