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Review of POPCORN

POPCORN August 27, 2004

The mall murderers made a point of not shooting the kid who sold them popcorn.

No, wait. They shot one popcorn guy, didn't they? A jerk. Probably. Maybe. Or he could've been as innocent as the next 16- year-old working for minimum wage at the multiplex. Wayne and his girlfriend-accomplice, Scout, never paused to find out if they had a motive to kill any of the people they shot point-blank after seeing the film "Ordinary Americans." Now Wayne and Scout have broken into the home of its director, Bruce Delamitri, who hours earlier won an Oscar for pandering to the powerless. They hold Delamitri hostage as Wayne's alibi in the Nietzschean defense he is plotting in advance of his arrest, for which he's already arranged live TV coverage: "Ordinary Americans" made him do it. It wasn't Wayne blowing those people away; it was the puppet-monster of Delamitri's cinematic vision. It's been six years since Ben Elton's "Popcorn" won the Olivier Award in London for best new comedy. Yet, only now is this searing social commentary making its premiere anywhere near the center of this country's theatrical universe. Kudos to producer-director Frederic DeFeis for bringing it to our attention. Although both Elton's play and Arena's production are flawed, the message surpasses any shortcomings, whether or not we accept it.

Oliver Stone made a similar statement in his 1994 film "Natural Born Killers," but his commentary on violence devolved into sensational self-parody. While "Killers" faulted the news media for glorifying violence by investing it with sex appeal, Elton indicts the sweep of American culture.

Delamitri, a director in the Quentin Tarantino mold ("Pulp Fiction" was released the same year as "Killers"), absolves himself by wrapping his work in the prayer shawl of art. Derek McLaughlin's glib defense of his character Delamitri's moral blind spots drives "Popcorn" as surely as the bullets that pop indiscriminately from Wayne's gun-phallus. But the film director is no more nuanced than any of the other types in Elton's American-noir universe.

Skeeter Boxberger as Wayne overdoes the bumpkin caricature, though convincingly so. Wayne would be more effective if he were one of us, as he assesses his chances of being acquitted: "The law's just a piece of Play-Doh." (Wayne learned everything he knows by watching TV.) He and Scout (gum-chomping Sara Suvak) are "victims" in Elton's poor-white-trash America. Jenna Pollock has the requisite physique, though not the comic timing, for Brooke, the centerfold and would-be actress Delamitri brings home with his other Oscar trophy. Martin Edmond as the director's morally bereft agent turns stomachs aptly.

Gail Merzer- Behrens as Delamitri's soon-to- be ex and Darcy Donnellan as their daughter, Velvet, round out a twisted domesticity that fails to anchor any of them, even in the face of massacre.

"Popcorn" crackles with wicked humor as every living, dying soul indecently works his or her angle with foul-mouthed frankness. From striptease to bang- bang-you're-dead, it's an R-rated show with an adult moral to sleep on.

POPCORN. New York-area premiere of the Olivier Award-winning play by Ben Elton. Directed by Frederic DeFeis. Arena Players Main Stage, 296 Rte. 109, East Farmingdale, through Sept. 12. Seen Aug. 19.

-Steve Parks