I can't decide who was more of a letdown: SuttonBeresCuller or the audience that cheered their shallow, clichéd, dim-witted new work at the Northwest New Works Festival two weekends ago.
The piece: a stock narrative about a man kept down by a stereotypical life (office job, wife, kids). Its structure is dream-sequence. An old man, played by John Sutton, goes to his boring job, goes home, goes to bed, and dreams about being young again, which is great until his chipper wife gets pregnant. (For those just catching up, getting a girl pregnant is traumatic for boys.)
The moment Sutton's face appeared on the screen, the audience laughed. This audience knew these guys and was there to cheer. With friends like these, artists don't need enemies.
In the piece, the young man's life begins to unravel when the video screen shows the word "ejaculation" written on a chalkboard by a teacher in a twee nostalgia video from the 1950s. (Are you keeping track of the clichés?) Eventually, everybody who's been onstage (a bunch of clichés: suave bartender, vixen, demented doctor, etc.) chases the young man around and pins him to his desk in a paroxysm only interrupted by the fact that the old man, who is dreaming the mob, gets up to pee—a halting pee because, you know, he's old.
Every scene coasted by without being unsettling, sympathetic, or clever. One of the three would do.
One obvious interpretation: The piece is a release valve for the anxiety of three 30ish guys getting older. If this is their way of getting older as artists, they're in trouble: They're only going to keep getting older. This was like Neil Simon on a bad day (think of nauseatingly busty nurse "characters" and the one-liners from the Catskills circuit) with a little simulated video sex and some mouth foaming thrown in.
If it were all a hoax, if there were any hint that this was intended as audience torture, then maybe you could at least appreciate their dramatized haplessness in the face of an empty stage and a mountain of expectations. After all, the three artists have a shared reputation as A-listers. They have the hottest dealer in town. They won the Stranger Genius Award for Visual Art in 2005. And they have a storm of fans, including Regina Hackett, the art critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, who, as quoted in the program notes, compares them to Merce Cunningham, John Cage, and Morris Graves. Even typing the comparison makes me embarrassed. The point here is not that SBC are awful artists; it is that even when they make an awful work of art, nobody notices.
SBC's work in the busy year since their generous-hearted but underrealized Chinese restaurant—so many strings left unpulled in that work, the service and race aspects being just two—has varied widely, seeming to increase in volume but pale in interest. Ideas without legs: the houses at Bumbershoot, the boat at TAM. Jokes without heart: this performance. What's going on? Whatever they were trying to pay tribute to in this piece—Paul McCarthy? Matthew Barney? Dada theater? There's Something About Mary? Porky's? Married with Children? (I'm trying here)—they seriously missed the mark.