As a target for satirists, there is probably no broader side of a barn than the world of advertising. In fact, hype-and-hucksterism as satirical fodder has been exploited so frequently that it's become too easy and predictable to be funny about it, like taking pokes at lawyers, televangelists or Ronald Reagan. The most effective barbs tend to be short-form, e.g., "Saturday Night Live's" hilarious sendups of everything from highbrow perfume ads to low-life shysters with their Bass-o-Matics.
Apparently unafraid of tackling the obvious, first-time playwright Martin Blank and the Source Theatre Company have staged "Avenue of the Americas," a quick and quirky jab at the Madison Avenue ad exec set, as part of the theater's Late Night series -- a weekends-only offering of brave new works. At 45 minutes, it manages to squeeze out the laughs in short bursts, mainly on the strength of the commercial spoofs used as transitions between scenes.
The plot centers on Katie White, a New Jersey mental patient who is obsessed with the gunk growing between cracks in television programming, otherwise known as commercials. Blessed -- and eventually cursed -- with a photographic memory, Katie spouts statistics from Advertising Age magazine, recites television commercials at random, and lives under the delusion that she's a successful advertising executive. She dresses, underneath the straitjacket she's sometimes confined to, in a business suit and pearls.
Escaping the mental hospital and heading for New York, Katie stumbles into a businessman lothario who hooks her up with a job at a high-powered ad firm. Predictably, she soon rises to the top through a combination of her naivete, a strict adherence to advice she received from a hooker, and unintentional ruthlessness toward the competition's products. Along the way she earns 14 Clio nominations (the equivalent of Emmys for TV commercials) and the wrath of her boss when the cutthroat ad campaigns backfire.
It's been asked before, but "Avenue of the Americas" asks again: Who is crazier, the people who create insipid advertisements or the public that buys both the pitch and the product? Does anyone really care? Hey, sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don't.
In the end, it doesn't matter because "Avenue of the Americas" is really just a pleasant distraction, a bit uneven, but nicely executed. Voted Outstanding New Play as a showcase production at last summer's Washington Theatre Festival, it moves fast and is easily digestible, perfect for the age of disinformation. The cast, especially Gary Telles in multiple roles as commercial pitchmen, pulls all the requisite groans, grimaces and gripes necessary for spoof. As Katie the mental patient, Kate Malin appears more robotic than psychotic -- the possibilities for an idiot savant character in a creative position aren't fully developed. It's the ensemble cast, Telles and Bernadette Flagler in the women's roles, that generates the most yuks.
Considering that seven minutes in every half-hour of television programming is devoted to commercials, very unfunny ones at that, "Avenue of the Americas" is a real bargain.
Avenue of the Americas, by Martin Blank, directed by Joe Banno. Lighting, Meredith Sims; sound, Robin Heath, staging, Persis Howe. With Kate Malin, Dean Avery, Richard Foster, Bernadette Flagler and Gary Telles. This Friday and Saturday only, at 11 p.m. at the Source Theatre.