IN THE BOOM BOOM ROOM
In his plays of the 1970s and early ‘80s like Streamers, Sticks and Bones, and Hurlyburly, David Rabe dissected the angry, violent, self-hating side of the American Dream, an America bleeding from self-inflicted wounds, the chickens coming home to roost from the Vietnam War. In the Boom Boom Room, first produced in 1973, drops us into the middle of that bad news world, though the war is never mentioned. The play follows the sad and increasingly nightmarish trail of a young woman in Philadelphia whose own modest dreams are doomed from the start and certain to be squashed.
Badly in need of an editor, Rabe’s self-indulgent script insists on dragging us through the naturalistic mud and virtually every cultural cliché of that era. Jennifer Copping’s fairly ambitious production meets the script head-on, embracing the play’s toxic stew of violence, racism, misogyny and unhealthy sexuality, and eliciting some strong work from the large cast. But what makes this a show not to be missed is the extraordinary performance of Victoria Bidewell as Chrissy, the little go-go dancer whose very name tells us she’ll be crucified for no faults of her own.
Bidewell starts slowly, building to a horrifying crescendo of neurotic self-doubt and pain. Picking up the pace and continually raising the stakes of Chrissy’s disintegration, she drives the character and the play to a couple of final scenes that are scary to watch. Full credit to director Copping, actor Derek Anderson who plays her bad-boy boyfriend Al, and especially Bidewell herself for making it look and feel like nothing is being held back without anyone actually getting hurt. This is especially difficult to do in an intimate space like Studio 16.
Poor, uneducated, working in a cynical profession that exploits women, and surrounded by abusive or otherwise no-‘count men, Chrissy never has a chance. Just in case we don’t get it, Rabe loads on ontological insecurity—Chrissy is sure her mother (Jill Teed) tried to abort her birth—and familial sexual abuse, which he telegraphs in the opening scene. However plucky she might be, this girl is Doomed with a capital D.
Chrissy gets offered potential escapes from the heterosexual trap (potential boyfriend Eric [Kevan Kase] is a hopeless wuss and Al’s friend Ralphie [Adam Lolacher] a repulsive psycho) in the form of a lesbian proposition from her bisexual manager at the club (Chilton Crane) and mutual-outsider solidarity from her over-the-top gay neighbour (James Kirk), but Rabe makes clear that there’s no way out for Chrissy, and Bidewell plays it brilliantly.
Brent Stait does excellent work as Chrissy’s repellent father (Stait and Bidewell are among the few cast members who don’t speak in a peculiar faux New York accent, one of director Copping’s only serious missteps). The disco scenes are enlivened by William Moysey’s period sound design and the sexy dancing of Bidewell and her fellow go-goers: co-producer Rhonda Dent, Melanie Walden, Joey Bothwell and Melissa Robertson. But there is no joy in the Boom Boom Room.