Once upon a time in America
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The world premiere of Oakland resident Jonathan Spector's "Good. Better. Best. Bested." - a co-production of Custom Made Theatre and Just Theater - is messy and black-humored, repulsive yet compelling. It may be an ideal theatrical reflection of our current national moment.
Set on the Las Vegas strip, Ground Zero of Ugly America, this loose-jointed series of vignettes pours a potent mix of the trivial and the apocalyptic. It's an umbrella-garnished Molotov cocktail.
In a single night under the Nevada neon, we meet a motley crew of our countrymen, intent on fiddling around at Caesar's Palace as the metaphorical Rome of American Empire burns. The bachelorettes, the feuding families, the sidewalk Spiderman, and the hooker with a heart of gold we meet in an intermissionless 90-minute rush of scenes are grotesque funhouse mirror-images of ourselves, all misguided priorities and an inability to grasp the big picture.
A nervous businessman brings that prostitute to his hotel room where, too timid to initiate physical contact, he reads aloud Yelp reviews of her services, then gets sucked down an internet hole, checking news and emails. The hooker checks her watch.
Her client snaps back into consciousness after being jolted by an onscreen headline - nuclear war has broken out in India. Then he asks if she'll give him a blow job.
A hopped-up local teenager on a custody date with his father explains that high-stakes poker gambling is his "means to find purpose" in life. Divorced Dad, meanwhile, is unemployed and needs to borrow from his son to cover their evening out, which is soon interrupted by rolling blackouts, suggesting that the night's disaster may not remain limited to other continents.
We meet tipsy Midwesterners eager to believe in flim-flam card tricks, U.S. soldiers who no longer believe in the efficacy of battle, and amped-up crowds whose only political impulse is to "fight for the right to party."
Endless selfies are taken. Novelty drinks are sipped from plastic Eiffel Towers. And as India burns, Spector gives us characters whose familiarity with the Taj Mahal ends with Donald Trump's Atlantic City bankruptcy.
Spector's influences seem more cinematic than theatrical. As a large number of characters (cast members play multiple roles) weave in and out of each other's evenings across many locations, "Good. Better. Best. Bested." recalls the collage-like narratives and moral rot of Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia" and "Boogie Nights."
This unfortunately creates an insurmountable hurdle for director Lauren English. It's impossible to simultaneously deliver both the sweep and the specificity of Spector's vision on a stage. His scenes are too short and rapid-fire to convey depth-of-character through stage acting techniques; they beg for the intense close-ups and the subtle facial expressions allowed by film.
And because each member of the ensemble plays multiple parts, the dialogue's humor comes across broader and flatter than it deserves to be. Mick Mize, Tim Garcia, and Lauren Andrei Garcia stand out among the cast for the differentiating nuances they bring to their roles.
In the end, as theater, "Good. Better. Best. Bested." is merely good. Could it be better? Perhaps. Could we be? Absolutely. Playwright Spector reminds us that in a relentlessly self-centered society, the center will not hold.