Bruce Jay Friedman’s satirical black comedy ‘Steambath,’ which made its Off-Off Broadway debut in 1971, is considered one of the greatest plays of the last century, receiving uniformly rave reviews. It has been resurrected and under the direction of Ron Sossi is currently on stage at the Odyssey Theatre. Unfortunately, this revival simply does not work.
The premise of this old chestnut is God as a wisecracking Puerto Rican steam bath attendant. This particular steam bath is a holding area where the newly deceased dwell until they tell their stories before God after which they are commanded to walk through a door to the next level which appears to be a corridor illuminated by a bright white light. God mops the floor, wipes down the damp tiles, and puts out clean towels. In between his custodial duties, he issues a string of deadly commands to his gibberish-speaking computer, raining down havoc on the world below with car crashes and other life-ending catastrophes.
Exquisitely played by well-known stand-up comedian Paul Rodriquez, who lights up the stage with his megawatt presence, God has a moment of compassion when he sees an old woman who is heartbroken because her bird flew away and commands the wayward bird to fly home. He also feels sorry for a kid who was beaten up by the cops so he decides to send him on a long vacation to Copenhagen. At one point, he makes reference to his son, the carpenter. God eats and drinks and is dutifully served by his butler Gottlieb, wonderfully played by Yusuf Yildiz, who not only serves as his devoted servant, but also does an occasional tap dance when a distraction is needed. At one point God says, “I can get any food I want up here except lox – I can’t get fresh lox.”
So who are the dead inhabitants of this steam bath representing the after life? Well, there’s the very talkative Oldtimer (John Moskal,) the Stock Broker (Brian Graves,) a pair of gay Young Men (DJ Kemp) and (Devan Schoelen) who sing and dance and hold hands. Apparently they both loved the same man who spurned the two of them so they committed suicide. Perched on a high step is Bieberman (Robert Lesser) who annoys Oldtimer by some of his disgusting habits such as belching, farting, spitting out orange pits, and clipping his toenails.
The latest arrival is Tandy (Jeff LeBeau) and a bit later Meredith (Shelby Lauren Barry) both of who very slowly realize they are dead. Meredith says she has to go home because “I have to pay my Bloomingdale’s bill!” and Tandy insists that he has to go back because he’s totally turned his life around and everything is in place for a new start, including writing a book on “Charlamagne” and his perfect new girlfriend. The Tandy character is the voice of doubt and keeps asking God for proof of who he is, which he responds to by doing a card trick. This brings me to my next point.
The first third of Act I is loaded with laugh lines that should have resulted in laughter from the audience. Instead, those lines landed like lead balloons and the play didn’t come to any semblance of life until the Rodriguez entered the stage. He’s a real pro with impeccable comic timing which only served to spotlight the lack of energy from the rest of the cast, with Miss Barry’s performance as Meredith more suited to a high school production. She should really work with a coach to rid herself of her strident vocal delivery. Rounding out the cast are Anthony Rutowicz and Shay Denison who make brief appearances in Act II.
What is excellent about this production are the technical aspects including Gary Guidinger’s set design, Chu-Hsuan Chang’s lighting design, Christopher Moscatiello’s sound design, and Mylette Nora’s towel costumes. The shower sequences in Act I and II were especially well done with dense fog nicely masking naked bodies.
The more subtle philosophical ideas put forth by the playwright are deftly revealed as the characters review their lives and come to surprising revelations. When it’s time for the Tandy character to go through the door, he begs for his life, stating all the reasons why he deserves to live but as he reviews his past, he plays his own Devil’s advocate, questioning his reasoning for being spared. Another idea, with which the playwright dabbles, is the disorientation of people from a different generation who are stuck in their own time warp.
Despite a less than satisfying production, one can understand what drew Ron Sossi to this provocative material. As Artistic Director of the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, he has been one of the amazing pioneers of outstanding, avant-garde works and we certainly look forward to his next production.
ODYSSEY THEATRE ENSEMBLE
2055 South Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025
Run: Wednesdays: 8:00 pm (Nov. 28 & Dec. 5th only) Thursday: 8:00 pm (Nov. 8 only) Fridays: 8:00 pm (Nov. 2, 9, 16, 23, 30; Dec. 7, 14) Saturdays: 8:00 pm (Nov. 3, 10, 17, 24; Dec. 1, 8, 15) Sundays: 2:00 pm (Nov. 4, 11, 18, 25; Dec. 2, 9, 16)
Tickets: $32-$37 Box Office: 310-477-2055 ext 2 or here.