‘The After-Dinner Joke’ Comically Explores Politics of Charity (3 Stars)

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‘The After-Dinner Joke’ written by Caryl Churchill; Directed by Meg Taintor; Featuring Melissa Barker, Joseph D. Freeman, Bob Mussett, Lorna Nogueira, Meredith Stypinski. Presented by Whistler in the Dark Theatre at the Charlestown Working Theater, 442 Bunker Hill Street, Charlestown. Through Nov. 23rd

One of the problems with the truth is that a lot of the time it isn’t very much fun to see or hear, particularly when its something that proves us to be quite wrong about things that make us feel good. Which is why we get a lot more news stories from the media about Justin Beiber smoking pot or some pseudo-celebrity sleeping with another B-lister than anything of real substance from television news. It’s the mutually beneficial relationship that combine our not wanting to hear bad news combined with the broadcast companies’ desire for ratings.

Whistler in the Dark Theatre takes on one of those unpleasant realities with ‘The After-Dinner Joke’ at the Charlestown Working Theater. Written by the acclaimed English dramatist Caryl Churchill, known for her dramatizations on the abuses of power, she pulls no punches in lampooning all aspects of the charity game, while zeroing in on the corporate side of giving to the less fortunate. The show centers on Selby, who tells her boss that she wants to quit her secretarial job in the company because she wants “to do good”. Impressed by her earnestness, the boss gives her a position in the corporation’s charity branch, and the lesson in reality begins.

Selby’s first mistake is assuming that charity work and politics are mutually exclusive, and throughout the play she engages in brief dialogue vignettes with another character who debates her on this point, and also gives her a documentary-style narration on snakes (mostly pythons) which is probably meant to characterize the nature of corporations.  Like last season’s excellent ‘Our Country’s Good’ each actor plays multiple roles (across gender and age ranges) in addition to their principal character. This play incorporates over sixty characters played by five actors into the show, which is really a series of mini-sketches woven together.
Meredith Stypinkski plays the clueless Selby with some passion, and Lorna Nogueira does a convincing job as Selby’s elderly boss Mr. Price (as well as playing a baby in one vignette). The rest of the cast handles their multiple roles with some decent comic flair, considering the dark nature of the material.
This is classic black box theater, with little in terms of costuming save for the occasional hat or apron or tie to provide characterization, and props are minimal. There is, however, an added dimension of a large video screen in the space which is used to great effect in filling in the blanks by showing more detailed accounts of events like politicians volunteering to have pies thrown in their faces to raise money for charity as well as kidnappings. It also was a great device for the pre-performance, as the screen was used to show a looped “We are the World” video from 1985 – a musical tribute to a mass charitable outpouring from the general public.

If the plot sounds dry and preachy on the evils of corporations (it is a bit and rightly so) there’s also some pretty good dark comic moments in the show. The best  come when Selby proposes some television commercials that depict children dead from starvation that inform the viewer that “it’s all your fault!” before she is talked down by her boss and PR guy that a slightly more positive approach might be a little more effective. And as much as the corporate types take a beating in this show (with good reason), Churchill doesn’t spare the radical factions on the other side. One plot line involves a misguided extremist who decides that the best way to raise money is to kidnap corporate executives, hold them for ransom and then give the money to charity.
This is a pretty spare production that is well-acted and directed, but the material is not for everyone. Although the politics of this show might be close to my own, I certainly couldn’t see Fox News watchers getting any enjoyment from this show, especially when the most poignant line delivered is in regards to what the play’s author asserts is the true reasons corporations give to charities. When a corporate director explains that while they’re not paying the people in third world countries enough to live on, they need to give them enough so that they can buy their goods.  “We’re going to help them just enough so that we can help ourselves,” she hisses. For more info, go to http://www.whistlerinthedark.com/#!now-

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