By Samuel L. Leiter
Just in case your stomach is saying no, don’t go, be assured that, despite its title, Gluten! is actually gluten-free although it might be even more digestible if there were less of it. The only time you hear the eponymous word is in a comical song played over the curtain calls. You can also ignore that attention-grabbing exclamation point, since Stephen Kaliski’s sporadically funny new futuristic comedy, presented by the Adjusted Realists, isn’t a musical (unless you consider the ambient sound of a ligament repair a musical score).
Gluten!, whose title appears to be a metaphor for all our digestive, climatic, and biological fears, is set somewhere in the future, a time in which the people say “Holy Mitch McConnell,” a past architectural style is called neo-McCain, and Cameron Diaz is remembered as an immigration reformer. The Correction, a cataclysmic event, has driven people to seek total protection from the elements and what they ingest; white hazmat suits and masked headgear are de rigueur when going outside.
At the start a cute young married couple, Copious Fairchild (Jeremiah Maestas), a beat writer for the NFL (thus allowing for football jokes), and Hibiscus Van Der Waal (Shawna Cormier) are being shown by a realtor named Jerry (Josh Tobin) around a white, antiseptic, “sensitive” apartment in the Goldilocks development, “where everything is just right.” In Jason Sherwood’s design the audience sits on either side of the small stage, each half facing the other.
Copious and Hibiscus love the isolation of the windowless, soundproofed, elevator-less place—even appreciating the fourteen flights to reach it. Not only has it been certified “100% particle-free, 100% plastic-free, 100%-IKEA free,” it includes a master and mistress bedroom, a TV embedded in the ceiling, and, among other modern touches, a masturbatorium. In this post-Correction world, people avoid touching one another like the plague, and sex is a matter of the man masturbating and then providing his “jizm” to his mate who proceeds to “coagulate” it on her own; partners are allowed to get off on thoughts of attractive people they know, thousands of whose images are available online. This is of crucial importance to our bookless, coffee-less, goji berry-eating couple, who’ve been struggling to have a child. Gluten! is loaded with this kind of off-kilter, mostly sophomoric stuff, including a Voice that activates the apartment’s features and engages in repartee like a cool guy version of Siri.
For unexplained reasons, Jerry, Copious, and Hibiscus use oddball syntax and vocabulary; asked to turn on the lights, someone says, “Of course! That would be conducive to vision, wouldn’t it?” Profanity is normal, the longed-for baby being a “cuntmuffin.” The characters avoid hyperbole, preferring expressions like “medium,” “average,” or “even.” Or they say the opposite of what’s expected; Hibiscus happily says of the apartment: “Oh, it’s perfectly average! I very much don’t dislike it.”
Okay. Enough “pontificating,” as Copious would say. The principal storyline concerns a visit from Copious’s mother, Linda (Maggie Low), and her friend, Maple (Roger Manix), who, under the allegedly godlike Maple’s leadership, are “revitalizing pre-Correction living” in the abandoned suburbs, where danger comes naturally from “sickness, accidents, and global yellowing”; they want Copious (a.k.a. Chad) and Hibiscus to serve as poster children for their cause to attract new recruits. The narrative mainly concerns the young couple’s shocked reaction to the arrival in their pristine space of these germ-bearing outsiders, their response to Linda and Maple’s ministrations, and their deliberation over whether or not to join them in the ‘burbs.
There’s some clever, laugh-worthy material here, and the play smartly avoids preaching about any of the issues it raises. In essence, though, it’s an extended Saturday Night Live sketch that fairly soon begins running out of gas. Cut forty minutes from its two hours and ten minutes and maybe it would have a chance.
A fine sound design and original music by Matt Sherwin, interesting costumes by William Mellette, cool lighting by Jessica Greenberg, and spirited direction by the playwright and Amanda Holston support three fine performances. Maestas and Cormier are quirkily appealing as the young couple, Low is playfully liberated as the mother, and Tobin is amusingly versatile as three different Jerrys. Manix, though, with his largely affectless presence, is the most indigestible ingredient on display.
*Photos: Russ Rowland
Gluten! (through December 5,
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.59e59.org
Running time: two hour and 15 minutes including one intermission