The portraits of Ronald Reagan and George Bush will not fool you.
They are suspended from the set of "Motel," the third of the three one-act plays that make up "America Hurrah" at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre. And they are there, presumably, to indicate that the time is now. Everything else about this brief evening, however, will remind you that the time is really 20 years ago.
"American Hurrah" was one of the most influential off-Broadway events of the mid-1960s -- not only for the violence, the depersonalization and the emptiness that playwright Jean Claude van Itallie saw in our national life, but also for the stylistic innovations that the Open Theatre brought to the three works. Characters sometimes talked about themselves in the third person; actors were choreographed abstractly in a manner that suggested the mechanization of a hollow society; nightmare imagery infiltrated itself insidiously into the banality of daily routine.
All of this has been efficiently recreated by director Antoni Sadlak/Jaworski at the Woolly Mammoth. But the techniques and themes that once seemed audacious have been so thoroughly absorbed into today's stage vocabulary that "America Hurrah" now looks surprisingly tame. The evening tells us far less about where we are today than where we've come from.
In "Interview," the first of the playlets, four impassive interviewers bombard four job applicants with questions about their qualifications, reducing them in the process to blithering idiots. Interview over ("We'll be in touch with you," barks one of the interviewers), all eight performers move on to vignettes of life in the city, where they are further battered and brutalized by a society past caring.
"TV" shows us three office workers whose function is to monitor the inanities on television. They indulge in vacuous office chitchat and petty flirtations, only half aware of the programs unfolding behind them: a stupid Western, a glib evangelist's appeal, a World War II movie, a dismal father-knows-nothing sitcom and periodic news reports of Vietnam atrocities. Little by little, the TV characters invade the office, swirling around the hapless bureaucrats like ghosts, until life and television merge to the mocking sound of canned laughter.
If both those playlets now appear to be treading very familiar ground, the third, "Motel" (which was always the strongest of the three), retains some of its power to astonish. It is enacted by three performers, costumed and masked to resemble oversized creatures from a carnival float. One of them is the motherly proprietor of a motel on I-66, whose disemblodied voice drones on about the homely glories of her establishment.
Into this room bound a pair of newlyweds, who before long are engaging in obscene sexual foreplay. Eventually, they demolish the motel room and, in a paroxysm of drug-enduced frenzy, behead the proprietor herself. The contrast between the doll-like appearance of the characters (Jane Schloss Phelan's masks and costumes are pop-art perfect) and the savagery of their actions gives "Motel" a raw, surrealistic power.
This revival has been adroitly cast and the crisp production values attest to Woolly Mammoth's increasing sophistication (and growing budget). Michael Willis and Barbara Rappaport are especially sure assets in a cast required to play multiple roles. But the good work doesn't banish a nagging sense of deja vu. It is fascinating to realize how much of the American theater that came to flower in the 1970s is already contained embryonically in "America Hurrah." By the same token, it is undeniable that the parent has long since been overtaken by the offspring.
AMERICA HURRAH. By Jean Claude van Itallie. Directed by Antoni Sadlak/Jaworski. Set, John M. Connole; lights, Kenneth Thane Wilson; sound, John Vengrouskie; costumes, Marilou Massey and Petricia Raabe; "Motel" costumes, Jane Schloss Phelan. With Micahel Willis, Phyllis Ambrose, Kevin Murray, Barbara Rappaport, Stephen Hayes, Francie Glick, Adam Graham, Laurel Lefkow. At the Woolly Mammoth through Nov. 10.