Originally performed at the 2003 Seattle Fringe Festival, John Longenbaugh's How to Be Cool takes the form of a classroom lecture given by an adamantly uncool man (check his eyeglasses and high-water slacks) before a class of Midwestern high schoolers in 1962. The lecture's subject: the nature and purpose of cool, a concept our speaker dissects with a variety of tools, from early-'60s pop records (spun on an onstage turntable) to jokey slide projections from the 1962 World's Fair to rapturous reminiscences of fleeting moments of coolness. For Eugene—did I mention that the uncool man in glasses and high-water slacks is named Eugene?—the pinnacle of personal coolness came when a jazz musician smiled at him.
Throughout the multimedia ramble, Eugene pleas for the transcendence of cool—an admirable aim back in '62 (when cool was defined by Elvis Presley and James Dean and the wide world of jazz) that's all the more poignant in 2009, when cool is defined by the rigorously monitored tastes of the coveted 18 to 24 demographic. The ultimate point of this short, sweet 50-minute lecture has lit up artworks from the Gospel of Jesus to "Greatest Love of All": To thine own self be true.
As in the 2003 original, Eugene is played by Evan Whitfield, a seasoned Seattle actor who runs with the role. By his side is Anna Richardson as the teacher/love interest Miss Taylor, whose broader performance style draws Whitfield into more cartoonish territory; their romantic subplot plays out like the introduction to an Oklahoma!-style musical number that never arrives. Comfortable sloppiness is evident elsewhere in the Longenbaugh-directed production: Gestures at 1962-classroom verisimilitude are halfhearted (preshow shushes from the teacher—take that, fourth wall). And what are we to make of a mildly obsessive cultural historian who, in 1962, repeatedly mispronounces the name of Adlai Stevenson? Not much. But How to Be Cool is pleasant enough while it lasts.