Are you a good dwarf or a bad dwarf? In the storied production history of The Wizard of Oz, there were notoriously (and no doubt, apocryphally) so few of the former that Glinda-like attempts at taxonomy seem pointless. They were all bad, or at least naughty, as dwarves have historically seemed in the popular imagination. Celebrated novelist Irvine Welsh (Trainspotting) and screenwriter Dean Cavanagh’s ribald new stage comedy, however, about four “Munchkins” housed together during the filming of Oz, brings such stereotypes of good and evil center stage, where size may not count at all.
Babylon Heights, receiving a rocky world premiere at San Francisco’s Exit Theatre, builds on the towering Hollywood tale that has the 100-plus dwarves cast as Munchkins running amok in their Culver City hotel, converting it into a den of drunken rioting and sex orgies. But if the premise climbs to the heady stratosphere of urban legend, its story keeps us resolutely low to the ground. First of all, its average-size actors play on an oversize set (a dingy hotel room designed to surreal effect by Tony Kelly and Colby Thompson), giving us a waist-high perspective on the big-people world throughout. Moreover, the germ of its story line has to do with an even more sordid detail in that lasting legend: the rumored suicide of an MGM Munchkin on the set of the film (supposedly just visible in the background, swinging from an artificial tree, in the scene where Dorothy and company set off down the Yellow Brick Road).
With that tasty morbid morsel as an appetizer, Babylon introduces four misfits thrown together by circumstance, each drawn for subtly different reasons to Tinseltown’s mirage utopia, not unlike Dorothy to Oz. There’s Bert Kowalski (Russ Davison), an archetypal ’30s Brooklynite in all but stature, and a bilious, foulmouthed, raunchy little opium addict to boot. There’s Raymond Benedict-Porter (Dennis McIntyre), the self-styled master thespian and an unctuously pretentious name-dropper (who Bert mercilessly teases, recognizing the poseur from the circus circuit). There’s the equally disingenuous Philomena Kinsella (Brittany Kilcoyne McGregor), an Irish working-class girl who’s left the drudgery of a nunnery for the adventure of Hollywood and who artfully feigns fearful innocence in the face of a roomful of men. And finally there’s the true innocent, Charles Merryweather (Chris Yule), the play’s own Dorothy. Cast as a Munchkin infant, the sheltered Englishman (once in the king’s employ at Kew Gardens until driven off by big bullies) is the literal babe of the story, and its sacrificial lamb.
It sounds like a good arrangement for a saucy Rabelaisian send-up of the existing order of things. After all, the dark corners of Oz will never cease to fascinate. And as a depression-era tale, tall or otherwise, the desperation, tribulations, affinities, and infighting among a far-flung group of irregularly employed actors take on some added significance from the vantage of the “little people.” But Babylon never does much with the themes it broaches. In fact, its sardonic comedy never really takes off, although much of the blame could be laid at the feet of a lackluster production that, on opening night at least, could only stumble down the runway.
Contrary to the cavalier myth, the actors who played Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz were more like overworked and underpaid studio fodder, and Babylon’s gritty focus plays on that harsh reality. But here at least the focus blurs, and the surprisingly halfhearted dialogue repeatedly goes slack. Welsh and Cavanagh probably wrote something slightly different, and no doubt director Jesse Reese intended something a bit tighter, but it’s hard to tell going by opening night’s performance (and absent the published version of the play, which is not yet available). Merryweather’s lines are decidedly dull, confining Yule, for the most part, to one or two wide-eyed reactions. McIntyre and Davison, meanwhile, though both capable actors, seemed to be fishing for their lines so often that it began to resemble an evening of unflattering improvisation. The only suitably sharp performance came from McGregor, who immediately infuses the proceedings with much needed energy, while helping to pick up the pace in two acts that drag out to nearly three hours.
Leaving aside opening night missteps, for all its ribaldry, Babylon Heights ends up giving conventional morality much less of a comeuppance than you might expect, or would find, for example, in a wittier Joe Orton farce. SFBG
Through July 1, Wed.–Sat., 8 p.m.
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