Designer oxygen fuels a timely British comedy
CHARLESTOWN - How did Theatre on Fire, a tiny fledgling company, manage to mount the US premiere of a West End hit? Granted, Ben Elton's "Gasping" debuted in London quite a while ago: in 1990, at Theatre Royal Haymarket, with Hugh Laurie as the lead. At that point, Elton, a popular writer-comedian, was still sailing on the success of BBC's "Blackadder" series; he hadn't yet fallen out of favor - and sacrificed his edgy cred - for collaborating with the likes of Andrew Lloyd Webber.
There's nothing remotely middlebrow or saccharine about "Gasping," a dystopian comedy that posits a world in which "designer air" becomes a hot - indeed, vital - commodity. Theatre on Fire's producer-director Darren Evans, a "Blackadder" fan in his youth, saw Zeitgeist Stage's production of Elton's "Popcorn" three years ago and did some homework: Elton's first play was his for the nabbing.
And what a delight it is - especially under Evans's energized direction, and with a well-selected cast that, for the most part, aces the rapid-fire British palaver. Craig Houk in particular is a standout as gung-ho senior exec Philip, charged by the Murdochian tycoon Sir Chiffley Lockheart (David W. Frank, who's a little too soft-edged) with discovering the next "pot noodle" (a.k.a. ramen) - the ordinary stuff that no one knew they needed until they started adopting it in droves.
Houk is a physical dynamo from word one: he caps a profit report with a full-body spasm like a pitcher's windup ("I'm very excited!"). As Lockheart, Philip, and Philip's equally ambitious assistant Sandy (Nathaniel Gundy) one-up one another with absurdist, testosterone-fueled metaphors - the bullpen atmosphere makes AMC's "Mad Men" look like a Boy Scout meeting - Houk is called upon to mime a pretzelizing massage (by an unseen "Abdullah") and a hilarious encounter with an uncooperative bowl of party dip.
Philip's pot noodle - inspired when he happens upon "The People's Hayfever Listener Examiner Gazette Magazine" (short title "Phlegm") - is a device called the "Suck and Blow," which collects, filters, stores, and disperses oxygen. (Remarkably, Elton managed, in one tight, clever script, to anticipate the introduction of trendy oxygen bars - a phenomenon of the late '90s - and the premise of everyday deprivations that gave rise to 2001's "Urinetown.") Before long, with the help of Kirsten Carlton, a rapacious marketing whiz (Crystal Lisbon plays the role as if born to it), the haves of the world are savoring the good stuff - "Sicilian, sucked on the face of Mount Etna" - while depleting the Third World of cheap breathable air in order to supplement their personal stockpiles.
Who - other than Elton and now Evans - could ever have guessed how timely this text would read in an era of acknowledged global warming? (It's now old news that our tendency to "suck and blow" energy is having worldwide repercussions.) "Gasping" seems a particularly apropos choice for an autumn that seems to think it's summer.
Theatre on Fire's US premiere does have some minor flaws: principally, the difficulty American ears might experience in trying to picking up every nuance. The solution, though, is suitably low-tech: You might just want to go see it again.