January 11, 1994

Stitches; Of Stardom and a Tyranny of Images

In "Stitches," the corrosively funny, if overextended, comedy by the brother-and-sister team of David and Amy Sedaris at La Mama E.T.C., irony doesn't take the form of a wink but of a steady, wide-eyed gaze that flattens everything to the absurd dimensions of a macabre animated cartoon.

The story of a pretty, popular high-school girl who becomes a television star after her face is mutilated by the propeller of a power boat, "Stitches" portrays an America in which life is a series of media-conditioned reflexes. Actually, the play itself feels like the product of minds shaped by an unceasing stream of disjunctive images -- from old movie melodramas, perky sitcoms, hypnotic commercials and gritty tabloid news shows -- given bizarrely equal weight by the small screen that disseminates them.

This self-referential, low-camp sensibility, with its mixture of gross-out jokes, stoned humor and parodic pastiche, has been around at least as long as "Saturday Night Live." And the basic premise of "Stitches" -- the dictatorial, idol-making power of television -- is hardly fresh. (Remember "Network"?)

All the same, David Sedaris, who has developed a cult following as a droll commentator on National Public Radio, and his sister, who appears memorably in "Stitches" and has performed with the Second City comedy troupe in Chicago (as have two of her fellow cast members), are gifted satirists with their own, very particular voice.

Their dialogue bristles with mordant wit and off-center details that propel potentially obvious jokes into their own absurdist orbits. And it is brought into cleanly focused life by the show's director, David Rakoff, and its four-member ensemble -- Ms. Sedaris, Paul Dinello, Mitch Rouse and Becky Thyre -- who portray about 40 different characters with ingenious cartoonish shorthand.

The plot follows the roller-coaster career of Brittany Feeny (Ms. Thyre), the boating-accident victim who was, says a surgeon who sews her face back together, "a step-daughter to everyone." After being discovered by Hollywood agents ("She really had something . . . no face or chin, but something," reports one of them) in a Hospital Follies production, Brittany is given her own television show, also entitled "Stitches."

In a briskly staged theatrical equivalent of cinematic montage, people throughout the country, from blue-collar workers to fashion models, are shown sporting slashed faces in emulation of their new idol. When Brittany loses her right arm to an electric fan on the set of her show, her adoring fans lop off their right arms, creating serious problems for truck drivers, pool players and diners on buffet lines. Brittany's subsequent fall from grace is inevitable.

The play's satiric scythe swings wide, with targets that include the studiedly jaded Manhattan art scene, Method acting, Hollywood power players, drug abuse, mass murderers and Brittany's classically dysfunctional hick family. "At least your mother had the decency to die right there in the car with me," Brittany's father tells her in the hospital. In fact, the entire country is portrayed as dysfunctional, a grotesque, slightly-too-familiar chain of exploiters and addicted consumers.

Still, the company has a well-tuned ear for the fatuity of contemporary jargon, whether it comes from high or low culture. And it employs bargain-basement production values with uncanny efficiency, creating -- against Hugh Hamrick's set of two-dimensional cutouts and silhouette framing scrims -- the distorting sense of a comic-strip universe.

Ultimately, even at an hour and 20 minutes, "Stitches" sags, like a blackout sketch waiting for an overdue blackout. By the play's last third, its comic energy has diffused into excessive repetition (one could particularly do without quite so many rectal jokes), and its film noir conclusion feels sadly deflated.

Nonetheless, it's impossible to dismiss a comedy that bends all forms of cultural cliches with such demented verve. Even that stalest source of classic camp, the Hollywood soap opera, is recycled with vivid style here. "You want a pool?" Brittany screams at her director. "O.K., Karl, get a shovel and dig. But fill it with your own tears, because you're not getting any more of mine."

© 1997 The New York Times Company


Gulps and Gasps in a Loopy Comedy
Newsday; 1/11/1994; Aileen Jacobson

STITCHES by Amy and David Sedaris (The Talent Family), directed by
David Rakoff, set by Hugh Hamrick, lighting by Howard Thies, with Paul
Dinello, Amy Sedaris, Mitch Rouse and Becky Thyre. At The Club at La
Mama E.T.C., 74A E. Fourth St., Manhattan, through Jan. 22. Seen

THE HOSPITAL roommates, one in a wheelchair, the other with a hood covering her mangled face, have cozily been sharing secrets as the scene begins.

"I've never told that to anyone," says Victoria Swaggs, the wheelchair-bound one.

"What did you do with the bones?" asks Brittany Feeny, 17-year-old victim of an unfortunate water-skiing accident.

Gulp. Pause. And then the audience starts to laugh.

This is the way it goes in "Stitches," a macabre and hilarious social satire that — who can resist? — leaves you in stitches.

The show, written by Amy and David Sedaris, follows the fortunes of Brittany, who, after being taught to act in the hospital by former actress Victoria Swaggs, becomes a national heroine and star of her own TV show, in which she plays a character named Stitches. She starts a major fashion trend: Her many fans soon sport surgically deformed faces.

When Brittany, in another accident, loses a body part — well, you can imagine. After she confesses to enjoying drugs, the plot thickens even more.

In brief vignettes, we see some of the consequences of Brittany's celebrity — at a high-fashion show, at a toy store that's sold out of the hugely popular Stitches doll and at her home, where her unsavory father makes a profit selling off her (purported) personal articles, particularly to prepubescent girls.

This is pretty bizarre stuff, but — I'll add for the squeamish — not nearly so stomach-turning as a recent episode about plastic surgery on "The Ren and Stimpy Show," which co-author David Sedaris counts among his creative influences. (Sedaris is also a National Public Radio "Morning Edition" commentator best known for his account of being a Santa's elf at Macy's.) Rubber bands and Scotch tape are used imaginatively in this appropriately scruffy production, briskly directed by David Rakoff, at The Club at La Mama E.T.C.

The comedy starts a little slowly — one wonders at first whether the humor will all be based on speech defects and four-letter words. But the loony humor soon gathers speed. Indeed, total tastelessness is part of the point in this skewering of cultish conformity, celebrity worship, voluntary mutilation and other forms of willing self-destruction.

Up to now, Sedaris — who also wrote "Stump the Host," a hit at La Mama last year — has been the subject of more media attention than his sister Amy, but that should change now. (They call themselves The Talent Family — will more of them turn up?) Her performances in several roles, including a slinky model and Brittany's sister, Piglet, are brilliantly caustic.

The four actors, Second City veterans, all play multiple parts. Becky Thyre, who portrays Brittany with breathless innocence, is especially good as a nasally toy store telephone operator. Mitch Rouse is inventive at creating bizarre body tics for his characters, and Paul Dinello, too affect-less at times, is best as Cliff, a guitar-playing Stitches fan.

The funniest character, however, is Amy Sedaris' feisty Victoria Swaggs. As Swaggs comes rolling into the hospital room, she barks at an able-bodied man, "Would you move the chair? I can't." As for her injuries, she waves inquiry aside: "Gang-related. Don't ask." She's terrific in her B-movie-inspired pep talks to the newly unveiled Brittany as she sends her to the Hospital Follies, her first public performance.

Victoria can barely stand to look at Brittany but snaps, "You've got something special... There's an audience down there waiting for you." The Sedaris siblings have something special and there's got to be an audience waiting for them, too.

© 1997 Newsday, Inc.