The first press release for new theatre company Square MaMa Productions notes that if the group has its way, "recycling is going to be big in Bay Area theatre." The release goes on to note how Broadway flops like One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and The Iceman Cometh got second lives as off-Broadway revivals and became regarded as great American plays.
It's a fair and even compelling argument, but it doesn't exactly apply to Tony-winner Terrence McNally's Bad Habits, with which Square MaMa co-directors Randy Warren and Suki O'Brien chose to make their company's debut at Theatre Rhinocerose. Hardly overlooked, the play debuted off-Broadway in early 1974, then moved quickly to a five-month run at Broadway's Booth Theatre while still retaining the necessary off-Broadway cred to garner an Obie award that year. McNally went on to fame with Broadway hits like Kiss of the Spider Woman and Love! Valour! Compassion! Meanwhile Bad Habits stayed off the radar until its 1990 Broadway revival, which bombed despite the best efforts of stars like Nathan Lane and Kate Nelligan. Unfortunately, it also falls short in this revival, but not because of Square MaMa's cast and crew.
The quarter-century since McNally wrote Bad Habits have simply rendered its subject matter and script quaint. The play's story is split between two high-end health resorts with different approaches: Act One's Dunelawn, in which couples are encouraged to indulge in their excesses and Act Two's Ravenswood, in which individuals are medicated out of their bad habits and into a lobotomized state. At Dunelawn, a guru-ish doctor spouts platitudes amidst a bickering Hollywood actor couple, a bewildered East Coast suburban couple and a resident neurotic gay couple. At Ravenswood, a largely mute presiding physician directs a dysfunctional pair of nurses to jab needles into an alcoholic, a wannabe cross-dresser, and an Italian who acts stereotypically Japanese.
Sounds like it has some potential. But when judged as such, the "bad habits" to be treated extend to drinking, tobacco smoking and sex (the last mostly referenced with an abundance of winking corniness). This is presumably set in 1974 -- well into the sex-and-drugs revolution, and no there's not a trace of rock 'n' roll, either literal or figurative. In this era of rehab, online porn, and reality TV, Bad Habits has near-zero realistic social edge, so the satire simply falls flat.
But again, there's no blaming the cast, each of whom play different characters in each act. For example, Sylvia Kratins shines as both half of Dunelawn's cartoonishly vain actor couple and Ravenswood's high-maintenance head nurse, while Tom Juarez shines as both a comically anxious homosexual at Dunelawn and a jaded inpatient loser at Ravenswood. The audience favorite, however, seemed to be the deadpanned 60-something Remi Barron, who plays an instinctively perverted butler at Dunelawn and a hilarious dipsomaniacal patient at Ravenswood.
Those actors, along with the rest of the cast and the audience, would have been far better served by a play that didn't suffer from a cutesiness so archaic as to almost render it a period piece. Here's hoping that Square MaMa come up with a more relevant piece next time.
Bad Habits runs through August 30, 2008 at Theatre Rhinoceros. For tickets and information, visit therhino.org or call 415-861-5079.