Southern CA March 31, 2004

Popcorn Reviewed By Les Spindle

The popcorn tastes stale in Ben Elton's pitch-black sendup of
Hollywood amorality, the media circus, and glorified violence,
exploring themes reminiscent of popular fare ranging from
Chicago to Bonnie and Clyde. In the first Southland production
of this 1998 work at the El Portal Theatre in 2000, it seemed
that the slick sitcom-style direction had flattened out what
appeared to be a trenchant Orton-styled dark comedy. For long
stretches, the current Rude Guerrilla production has the
opposite problem--seeming to forget that this tale of
depravity and murder is supposed to be laugh-out-loud funny.
Director Jay Fraley has fashioned a schizophrenic production.
Though the first act isn't perfectly paced or fully in tune
with the irony behind the satiric barbs, it at least brings
out some of the humor in the script. When the threat of
violence becomes a reality just before the act break, the tone
switches to somber melodrama, leaving the impression we are
viewing a different play.
The widely uneven quality of the performances is the crux of
the problem. In the focal role of Bruce, an Oscar-winning
director held hostage in his home by two notorious serial
killers, Vince Campbell scowls ominously throughout, as if
this were a remake of The Desperate Hours rather than a wicked
satire. He brings out little of the comic pomposity of a
corrupt creative artist who wants to convince himself--and
others--that his gratuitous depictions of violence and sex are
high art. As his nagging producer, Sharyn Case delivers all
her lines at the same histrionic pitch and tends to upstage
herself in face-to-face battles with Bruce. Erika Tai is
unconvincing as a Playboy model and wannabe actress who
appears at the house unexpectedly. Karen Harris has good
moments but is inconsistent as Bruce's self-serving ex-wife,
who places material concerns over her own safety and that of
her family.
The best performances come from the actors playing the
murderous couple. As the white-trash gun moll, Jami McCoy
comes closest to maintaining the humorous aspects of the
material all the way through. Ryan Harris' loose-cannon
thug--at times a dead-ringer for Sean Penn--elicits solid
laughs in the first act but also falls into the trap of taking
the progression to dangerous situations too seriously.
Beyond the shortcomings of this production, one leaves with
the thought that this Olivier-winning play has seen better
days. Its long-winded view of a buck-passing society, in which
no one wants to take responsibility for his or her misdeeds,
might have seemed fresh and trenchant when it premiered, but
it now comes across as dated and overwrought. The Rude
Guerrilla Company has staked its reputation on edgy,
envelope-pushing fare, but this misguided rendition of an
overrated work has a been-there/done-that feel.

Friday, April 2, 2004
No puffery from 'Popcorn'
Review: Rude Guerrilla's staging of the 1998 dark comedy balances satire with serious moral issues.

Special to the Register

If the topic of violent movies possibly inciting violent
behavior and the idea of our reacting to that topic with
unbridled laughter seem mutually exclusive, then Ben Elton has
belied that apparent division in "Popcorn."
Elton's subject matter is rife with dramatic potential: A
young Bonnie-and-Clyde-style couple, reminiscent of the title
characters in Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers," make
their way across the country, slaughtering innocent bystanders
as they go. Dubbed "the Mall Murderers," they reach California
and break into the home of Hollywood director Bruce Delamitri,
noted for the over-the-top violence of his films.
Turns out his latest hit, "Ordinary Americans," is not only a
controversial gore-fest - it's the homicidal duo's personal
fave, a source of delight and inspiration. Therein lies the
basic irony of "Popcorn," which began as a novel in 1996
before the British Elton adapted it for the stage two years
Now it has made its way onto the stage of the Empire Theater
in Santa Ana, where director Jay Fraley and members of the
Rude Guerrilla Theater Company have taken great pains to
preserve both the dark humor on the surface of Elton's
surprisingly suspenseful tale and the grittier, more
deep-seated social and moral issues at its core.
The tension comes courtesy of the standoff that develops
between serial killers Wayne and Scout (Ryan Harris and Jami
McCoy) and Delamitri (Vince Campbell), the man they supposedly
idolize yet whom they hold hostage and terrorize, along with
his various family members and friends. The laughs are
generated in any number of ways: Through the contrasts between
ultra-polished Hollywood and grungy, lower middle-class
America, through Bruce's equivocating over the nature of his
public image, through Elton's acidic one-liners, so many of
which drip with irony.
Fraley's staging moves swiftly, with the same dizzying
momentum as any real-life crisis. The Hollywood circle regards
anything affecting image or financial clout as of paramount
importance, making Elton's movie industry born-and-bred
figures singularly unequipped to deal with the unpredictable
rage and ferocity of those who would just as soon snuff out a
life as they would a cigarette. Underscoring this is the sole
instance where one of the hostages gains the upper hand (hint:
it's brief, and ends badly for the would-be hero).
The element that makes "Popcorn" at once realistic and surreal
is how Elton makes "real" folks Wayne and Scout, who are
sociopathic killers, distinct from the plastic sophistication
of Bruce and his inner circle, the very Hollywood denizens
whose fantasies fuel their violent impulses. Fraley's taut
direction elicits tension from the two young killers, grim
laughs from everyone else, and so well cast is Rude
Guerrilla's "Popcorn" that its performers mesh seamlessly with
their roles and with the material.
Harris and McCoy's pronounced Southern dialects underscore
their earthiness. Periodically exploding in murderous fury.
Harris' cocky, swaggering Wayne is all unbridled Id and
libido, a self-described "psycho" who exults in shedding blood
("We're just no-account white trash," he brags, "and the only
memorable thing we've ever done in our lives is kill people").
As loyal moll Scout, McCoy follows suit with equal parts
kittenish sex appeal and ferocious aggression.
Balancing their crudities is Campbell's at-first
self-inflated, later terrified director - serious enough to
hold our attention but not so serious as to stifle our
laughter at the character, Elton's solid jab at pretension.
Bruce quakes in his shoes while facing the threat of death to
himself and those closest to him, and Campbell makes his fears
palpable, trembling, hyperventilating, choking back tears.
Erika Tai takes the role of Brooke Daniels, the supermodel who
insists she's a bona fide actress, well beyond stereotype and
into the realm of surprising emotional fortitude. Even with
frosty sex appeal, Tai displays the would-be actress's finest
moments, at first standing up to Bruce for a role in his next
film, later angling to curry favor with Scout.
Less realistic and more openly parodistic of movie-world
phoniness, the supporting roles are well-played: Karen Harris
as Bruce's tightly wound, ill-tempered movie-star ex-wife;
Jennifer Cadena as their pigtailed 15-year-old daughter, who's
part Valley girl, part princess; and Sharyn Case as Bruce's
bossy, blunt producer, practically the only person who can
order Bruce around and get away with it.
Fraley's scenic design is dominated by black and red, to
reflect the chic décor of Bruce's home. The costumes of the
Hollywood characters reflect this color scheme, in sharp
contrast to the T-shirt and denim jeans-wearing Wayne and
Scout (as sly commentary, Scout's shirt is pink, Wayne's,
powder blue). Without being preachy, the play's denouement and
epilogue - like all of "Popcorn" - work ingeniously to expose
the flaws in "a culture that celebrates and exploits

The Blame
When sex and violence aren’t enough

OC Weekly - by Joel Beers

It’s a good thing Ben Elton wrote Popcorn in 1998. That gave him 97 years of bad plays to prevent his from being called Worst Play of the Century.

Rude Guerrilla calls Popcorn a "pitch-black" comedy, but the play’s not nearly twisted, satirical or chilling enough to be black, and it’s about as funny as a Papal bull. It’s a hackneyed mess that seems to want to say something interesting about America’s obsession with violence and celebrity, but instead comes off feeling like something Oliver Stone scribbled one night while jacked up on blow and Hennessy and directing Natural Born Killers.

Main character Bruce Delamitri is a director of horrifically violent and sexually charged movies. He inexplicably wins an Academy Award for best direction of a film being hyped by the media as the reason a white-trash couple—"The Mall Murderers"—has embarked on a shooting spree in America’s malls.

Played by Vince Campbell (evincing as much urgency as the guy behind the window at your local DMV), Delamitri figures the award has absolved him of responsibility for the murder spree. He plans on taking out his newfound respect on the body of a Playboy centerfold (a suitably sultry Erika Tai) he picks up at an Oscar party. Unbeknownst to Delamitri, the murderers (a convincingly brutal and fucked-up Ryan Harris and an equally convincing Jami McCoy, who comes off like Tonya Harding on a speed binge) have broken into his Hollywood mansion and plan to hold him hostage in order to prove their point to America: someone has to take responsibility for their killing spree, even if they won’t.

There’s much overwrought violence, a few sex scenes and some muted stabs at Hollywood vanity. But mostly Popcorn is just a bunch of gabbing about artistic integrity, personal responsibility and our collective obsession with violence. It’s hard to remember—1998 was so long ago—but it’s possible these themes were more original then. There’s nothing in Popcorn that any number of plays or films—from Bowling for Columbine to The Laramie Project—haven’t covered more powerfully and incisively.

Popcorn proves this: the only thing worse than getting murdered by a vicious killer is having to hear people talk about it.

It’s tempting to think Elton’s play is just one big goof. According to the program, he’s a British standup comedian who adapted his 1996 novel Popcorn for this play. Unless you’re Robin Williams or Martin Short, "standup comic" means "funny," right? But director Jay Fraley can’t seem to decide whether Popcorn is a serious examination of pop culture and American violence or a two-hour satire. The truth, most likely, is that it’s a little of both, but this production fails to adequately cover either and comes off as empty as the soulless, money-grubbing, attention-seeking whores and self-pronounced victims who inhabit it.

Elton’s point, if there is one, is lost in the unfocused production. Maybe it has something to do with the notion that in a society in which everyone is a victim and is so eager to point fingers at something else—the media, parents, chemical imbalances, the Santa Ana Water District—for one’s problems, it’s only natural that killers prowl the kiosks and Subways of middle America.

Whatever. A far grimmer truth is that there’s just a meanness in this world.

And there’s also some really, really poor writing.
Friday, April 2, 2004

L.A. Times

It's Oscar night in Beverly Hills. Self-absorbed auteur Bruce Delamitri
prepares for the annual glad-handing orgy. Gallingly, Bruce's estranged
wife, Farrah, won't reschedule their next-day property settlement session,
as she informs him while collecting their nymphet daughter, Velvet.
Bruce's caustic producer browbeats him over the PR nightmare that his
nominated film, "Ordinary Americans," has caused. Bruce's latest emotionless
art-house shocker follows a thrill-killing pair who cut too close to
real-life serial killers Wayne and Scout, currently terrorizing four states.
Bruce returns home with both Oscar and his presenter, ex-centerfold Brooke
Daniels. This pragmatic assignation ends when the Mall Murderers appear,
having broken in during the awards. The pair eschew money, escape or tabloid idolatry: Their intent is determining cultural responsibility for their
disaffected crimes.

This collision into collusion makes up Ben Elton's "Popcorn" at the Rude
Guerrilla Theatre in Santa Ana. British stand-up Elton's dramatization of
his 1996 satirical bestseller scores wicked points by targeting a consumer
society's inability to discuss its own culpability.

Certainly, director-designer Jay Fraley and company understand the game.
Vince Campbell's quasi-Tarantino antihero unravels with aplomb, approaching Harvey Keitel. The ever-amazing Ryan Harris and the priceless Jami McCoy are outrageous, unpredictable sociopaths. Erika Tai's Brooke is fearless, drolly asserting her "actress" status while bleeding out. Karen Harris, Jennifer Cadena, Sharyn Case, Tony Gilbert and Keith Bennett complete the redoubtable cast.

Ironically, Elton's exposed argument works against the dark comic tension,
slashing to read, but unabashed didacticism in action. That needn't deter
socialists, cinéastes and industry pros from attending this sardonic

Less esoteric tastes might find that "Popcorn's" climactic polemic suits
page more than stage.

--David C. Nichols