Review: “Trash” (New American Folk Theatre)

Anthony Whitaker and Jamal Howard/Photo: Paul Clark
Anthony Whitaker and Jamal Howard/Photo: Paul Clark

Show: “Trash”

Company: New American Folk Theatre

Venue: The Den Theatre (1333 N Milwaukee Ave)

Die Roll: 19

The promotional material for “Trash” describes the production by way of three unrelated cultural ingredients: “The Glass Menagerie,” the life of Anna Nicole Smith, and TV phenomenon “Hoarders.” While not an inaccurate description of this Midwest premiere by playwright Johnny Drago, the campy script eventually scraps its zany cultural smorgasbord in favor of a more traditional family secrets drama, and thus, loses some of the zest that defines the first act.

Produced by the New American Folk Theatre, “Trash” centers on Jinx Malibu (Anthony Whitaker), the washed-up star of smutty spy movies known as the “Rocket Pussy” series. She is addicted to both diet and sleep pills, and she lives in a garbage-filled house with her survivalist mother, Othermomma (Carrie Campana), her overeager and always pants-free son Loogie (Kirk Jackson), and her dreamy yet extraordinarily sheltered daughter Smudge (Caitlin Jackson). When a young man from California knocks on the door and insists on meeting Jinx, she quickly dubs him Mr. Hollywood (Jamal Howard), and assumes he is there to jumpstart her forgotten career. Despite his protestations, she launches into a full-scale pitch to revive the “Rocket Pussy” films, turning her family inside out in the process.

There are elements of Tennessee Williams’ Gentleman Caller in this play, but more noticeable is the thick veil of self-delusion that Jinx uses to smother the other characters; she shares this trait with that mother to end all mothers, Amanda Wingfield. Every moment is simply another scene for Jinx, another opportunity to wow the non-existent paparazzi, and gain love from her crush of invisible fans. Director Derek Van Barham underlines this attitude by having Whitaker look directly at the audience throughout the performance, often speaking directly to her admirers with a glassy-eyed gaze that conveys she hears cheers, even when staring at a wall. Late in the second act, Caitlin Jackson adopts a similar expression when repeating her closely held belief that she and her absentee father will be reunited in the wider world, if she ever gets the chance to leave the house.

Each character desperately clings to fantasies without having the actual wherewithal to achieve said dreams, and that makes for a less than ideal viewing experience. None of the actors shy away from the outsized nature of this material; Whitaker’s Norma Desmond routine elevates the script when the stakes appear flat, and Jackson’s Loogie gives his all when called upon to play a series of hot-shot characters required to sleep with Rocket Pussy. But the audience understands immediately that Mr. Hollywood can never revive Jinx’s career. The dramatic tension seems to lie in the family learning this fact while doing their level best to sell Howard on the new flick. But Drago never allows horrible reality to sink in. Rather than watching Jinx and Loogie and Smudge do the destructive work of continually restoring the fantasy, viewers are trapped in their gullible mindset, and thus, feel smarter than the people they are meant to root for. When the spell is never broken, do we care whether or not the magic impresses?

Jamal Howard, Carrie Campana, Anthony Whitaker, and Caitlin Jackson/Photo: Paul Clark
Jamal Howard, Carrie Campana, Anthony Whitaker, and Caitlin Jackson/Photo: Paul Clark

Drago complicates the plot by dropping a major revelation into the backend of the play, warping the story from a genre exercise until it becomes an O’Neill-heavy relationship drama. This switch might have worked, were the cracks in the family foundation allowed more time and space to grow beforehand.

Frankly, the design elements do a better job representing the push and pull between the garbage mountain apartment and the lively inner life fostered by Jinx. Set designer Clint Greene and set dresser Eric Shoemaker fill a faux wood-paneled living room with so much newspaper, the space resembles a dumpster. Light designer Cody Ryan, by contrast, fills the entrance to Jinx’s bedroom with bright yellows, so her shadow always precedes her entrance, and gives a horror movie feel to her appearances. When enacting “Rocket Pussy” with her children, deep purples and bright pinks accentuate trips into the dangerous blue yonder. It is through said light changes that we enter Jinx’s mind, and see the world as she wishes it be; the production delights in these moments.

“Trash” might not result in a consistent stew of high art and pop culture guilty pleasures, but the hardworking performers and smart design choices add flavor to the lack of cohesion. If you are a fan of camp and train wreck celebrities, this production provides ample servings of both.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Entertaining performances and sharp direction cannot salvage a divided script.

RATING: d8 — “Not Bad, Not Great”