By CHRISTA MORLETTI McINTYRE
In comedy circles, nobody gets made the butt of the joke more readily than American Southerners, especially in the North. It’s an easy laugh – so easy that it can be both lazy and sloppy.
A good comic can make it work. When Jon Stewart, famous and former host of the satirical Daily Show, gave us Florida Man, the idea that there’s a mashup of Aileen Wuornos the prostitute-turned-serial killer and Ezra “Penny” Baxter the native-swamp-citizen-full-of-mistrust-for-nature out in the poor man’s version of Louisiana didn’t seem farfetched. News reports continue to support this stereotype. But, let’s be fair: there are places in the South that are poorer than most, but no region of the nation can’t say the same.
David Nehis and Betsy Kelso wrote The Great American Trailer Park Musical a few years back and have followed up with a holiday version, The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical, which has now opened in Portland at Stumptown Stages.
The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical doesn’t ask much of its audience: mostly, it’s just a mean-spirited joke. Plenty of recent works look into the political and social tensions that make up the mosaic of American culture. But it becomes apparent by the second act of this musical that the composers and writers had little experience with the characters they wrote, and as much, no insight that would bring out the real the purpose of comedy: to make a truthful, if comical, story that shows something of our common humanity as it entertains.
Stumptown Stages is devoted to musical theater, and this show has tight direction, a great cast, and a good venue in the Brunish Theatre of downtown’s Antoinette Hatfield Hall. Sherrie Van Hine, as Betty, the manager of Armadillo Acres Trailer Park, is exceptional as the extroverted, cosmopolitan Southern Belle. Kelly Stewart is the highlight of the show as Pickles: her antics are outrageous, she has a great voice, and she dances well. Steve Coker, as Rufus Jeter, projects a little sympathy and love in his voice.
Still, by the end, the play doesn’t have the offensive sting of a good Chris Rock or Don Rickles line: It just makes jokes at the expense of others, without making a relevant or insightful commentary. That’s its main flaw. It’s not risqué enough, or pushing the envelope far enough, to have much meaning beyond its lazy laughs. And when it does push, it often pushes in the wrong direction. The character Lin’s full name is Linoleum, because she was born on a kitchen floor. Another character, Pickles, has divorced her husband, because she’s given birth to a black child. Infidelity is common in all circles, but this joke centers on the child’s race as a taboo. Rufus Jeter is often called a SpongeBob of all trades, because he works full-time at a lot of jobs. Working a lot of hours to make ends meet is a fault?
Stumptown has a lot of talent. But to stand out from the fold, it needs to tackle better material. With the amount of art and media at our fingertips, satire has become more sophisticated, and audiences demand good material. There is always space for a good critique with a constructive, funny nudge. But it takes a skilled and empathetic hand to create a good show that laughs at all of our flaws. The push behind good social comedy is to always have the audience walk a mile in someone else shoes: Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, for example, or, in a subtler and sadder way, Visconti’s The Leopard. The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical, sadly, hardly takes the first step.