Review: ‘Totem and Taboo’ at Central Works (**1/2)

by Charles Kruger
Rating: **1/2
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

Ed Norton and Ralph Kramden (Caleb Cabrera and Bob Greene), unveil the mascot of their beloved Raccoon Lodge during a drug-induced dream journey to "The Honeymooners" in Central Works production of "Totem & Taboo" by David Weisberg. Photo Credit: J. Norrena.
Caleb Cabrera and Bob Green seem to channel Ed Norton and Ralph Cramden in a fantasy sequence inspired by “The Honeymooners” in David Weisberg’s “Totem and Taboo” at Central Works. Photo Credit: J. Norrena.
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Ralph, a former history professor, left academia years ago to devote himself to his magnum opus — what he hopes to be a devastating critique of liberalism which he characterizes as unmanly. But in his role as fat and sloppy house husband to a successful research physician and primary parent to a rebellious teenaged son whose life’s ambition is to succeed as a personal trainer, Ralph isn’t exactly feeling so great himself in the macho department.

His new neighbor, a sexy divorcee, challenges his manhood by making plays for both his teenage son and his wife, much to Ralph’s embarrassment.

Ralph is facing a granddaddy of a midlife crisis, and must come to grips with his own father complexes and internalized taboos. Soon, with the help of a narcotic, his unconscious struggle forces its way into his life in the form of a fantasy in which he finds himself living out an episode of “The Honeymooners.” He becomes Ralph Cramden, his wife becomes Alice, while his son and the seductive neighbor transform into Ed and Trixie Norton.

The absurd plot involves themes of incest, cannibalism, and, of course, Totem and Taboo. The Totem in this case is the stuffed Raccoon of the Raccoon Lodge, and the Taboos are innumerable.

This bizarre premise is obviously very funny, with many opportunities for laughs and sophisticated intellectual humor. Too many.

Although there is a lot to admire in this production, it tries to include so many complex themes that it becomes difficult to follow and the confusion gets in the way of the laughs. The play was developed through a collaborative workshop process, with the final script in the hands of playwright David Weisberg. It seemed to this reviewer that this might be a case of too many cooks. It’s as if every idea and every joke that occurred in the extended workshop process had to be included, producing a play that seems to have been written by committee, with all the difficulties that implies.

In spite of these flaws, there is a lot here to amuse. As Ralph and Alice, Bob Greene and Deb Fink have capable comic chops and do more than serviceable impressions of Jackie Gleason and Audrey Meadows. Unfortunately, Caleb Cabrera and April Green as the Nortons do not fare as well. Caleb Cabrera is a fine actor, but impersonation is not his strong suit and his effort to recreate Art Carney’s Ed Norton falls flat. He is not even in the ballpark. This is a nearly fatal flaw.

The result is an evening of theatre which has a lot of material that does not work very well, and some material that works beautifully. The laughs, when they come, are big ones, and the intellectual content is quite entertaining when clarity is achieved, but such clarity breaks through the murk only occasionally.

My verdict: “Totem and Taboo” is a spicy raccoon stew with some interesting and amusing ingredients, but the flavor just doesn’t satisfy overall.

“Totem and Taboo” continues at the Berkeley City Club through March 20, 2016. For further information, click here

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“Totem and Taboo” by David Weisberg, produced by Central Works. Director: M. Graham Smith. Costumes: Tammy Berlin. Wigs: Bethany Deal. Lights: Gary Graves. Fight Direction: Dave Maier. Sound/video: Gregory Sharpen. Properties: Debbie Shelley.

 

 

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