People forget that, in the course of a career defined almost from the beginning by being a genre chameleon, David Bowie started out as a true-believing, Dylan-worshipping hippie. By the time of Nixon’s resignation, however, it was evident that the Flower Power ideals Bowie and his ilk had held so dear were in fact a supernova; by the time they could be appreciated, they were already long gone. Bowie grew embittered as the rot set in during the long garish hangover of the 1970s, couching his antipathy toward the modern world in the bouncy but heartless “plastic soul” of songs like “Young Americans,” which, like T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, used bad sex and domestic dysfunction as metaphors for the decay of a dream.
It’s only appropriate, then, that Theatre Downtown’s production of Colin Higgins’ Harold and Maude uses “Young Americans” liberally in its soundtrack for a witty, melancholy tale of 70s ennui. In the play, Harold–played, in the interest of full disclosure, by my friend Nathan Merritt–is a deeply lonesome twentysomething who stages suicides to capture the attention of his cartoonishly soulless harridan of a mother. While spectating at a funeral, Harold catches the attention of fellow traveler Maude (played with wonderful vivacity by Donna Littlepage), one of the earliest and most unlikely examples of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. It’s not exactly a spoiler to reveal that the remainder of a play called Harold and Maude features the odd couple’s budding relationship, as Harold matures into a real live boy and fissures in Maude’s cheerful facade begin to show.
At its heart, this production of Harold and Maude is about the phoenix’s ashes. Different characters leap at the chance to catch hold of the receding pulse of the Sixties, but there’s a funereal air in spite of their optimism. Maude herself quotes the old proverb: “This too shall pass.” This atmosphere is abetted meaningfully by pitch perfect costuming and music; an abundance of leisure suits provides constant reminders of a lost era (a la Wes Anderson) at its lowest ebb, while the soundtrack, hearkening back to classics of the Top 40’s heyday, becomes surprisingly poignant amid the play’s wistful subtext. It’s only appropriate that the stage is located on the second floor of an antiques shop.
Though not free from distracting instances of amateurism–a canned whistle effect comes to mind–Harold and Maude is easily the most entertaining and professional Theatre Downtown production I’ve seen. For one thing, despite its sad heart, the show’s damned funny. And these aren’t your usual cheap, bawdy laughs, either. Littlepage gleefully embraces Maude’s penchant for non sequiturs without getting too hammy; Merritt manages to make each of Harold’s “suicides” more sublimely ridiculous, culminating in a hilarious hara-kiri; Bates Redwine invokes Chris Parnell’s Dr. Spaceman character from 30 Rock as Harold’s asinine psychiatrist; and Kelsey Crawford steals the show playing Harold’s ill-fated succession of dates, particularly killing as the nebbishy secretary Nancy during the second date. Depressing though the play’s underlying message may be, Harold and Maude still nets plenty of laughs.
As Don Draper says during his finest monologue, nostalgia as a dramatic tool is delicate, but potent. Toss in a heavy dose of whimsy and satire, and you’ve got a recipe for a fiasco in indelicate hands. Thanks to some really fine acting and tasteful, clever direction from J.J. Marrs, this production doesn’t merely avoid disaster. In tandem with a receptive audience, it ends up representing community theatre at its most delightful and moving.
Harold and Maude continues at Theatre Downtown on Thursday night at 8 o’clock, with evening shows running through Saturday.