- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 7, 2002

Anthems: Culture Clash in the District,” playing at Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater through Oct. 13, is a

joyous and thoughtful examination of a city interrupted by the harrowing events of September 11.

But the creative force behind it, a comedy/theatrical group called Culture Clash, gorges on far more history than it can digest. Everything from slavery to airport security checks is thrown into a maladroit mix of comedy and political satire.

What emerges, however, is always appealing to the eye and often hilarious. The assembled nine players, including two of the three members of Culture Clash, display unerring comic timing throughout the brisk set pieces.

Creators Richard Montoya and Culture Clash simply have too much to say in too narrow a medium.

The play's loose cohesive element, based on the writers' real-life attempts to chronicle the District, involves a playwright interviewing random people in and out of Washington.

Along the way, we meet such people as a Texan grief counselor who inspires the playwright to compose an “anthem” to the smarting city post-September 11 and a black electrician who dreams of dancing with Abraham Lincoln.

The play's creators strive mightily to invest “Anthems” with political and social balance. On the few occasions when the characters deride the country, another voice emerges to challenge the critique. For every dig at President Bush, dubbed a “rocket scientist,” a remembrance of former President Clinton's lascivious ways is added for good measure. Only a nasty swipe at Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas seems both partisan and gratuitous.

The first 20 minutes of “Anthems”are its best and boldest. The early vignettes, including the chat with the grief counselor at a terminal at Los Angeles International Airport and a taxi ride with a Muslim driver, offer true insights into the city's character. The weary driver tells his passenger that his children “worship Allah and Nike,” one of many shrewd one-liners.

In one of its more clever constructs, a raging Muslim American complaining that the country is out to get him is juxtaposed with a gun-toting redneck decrying that minorities are ruining his beloved country. Later, the sound of an oncoming Metro train's screeching wheels is compared to the pitch of a Miles Davis trumpet solo.

Another winning sketch involves a typically tony D.C. fund-raiser for the fictional Panda Fertility Fund. In a few swift strokes, the botox-frozen, ethically dubious revelers who make the scene are skewered deliciously.

Later, the narrative structure buckles. Actors begin pontificating without seeming to be in character or even in an established scene.

Director Charles Randolph-Wright knows enough not to overplay his dramatic hand. His actors never patronize with their performances. The set and lighting work by Alexander V. Nichols turns the simple stage into a series of engaging sets with just enough shape and form to provide the proper backdrop.

The creators of “Anthems” were commissioned two years ago to write a play about the District, an assignment interrupted by September 11. They can't be accused of skipping out on their homework. The play teems with D.C. references, the kind that only could be generated by either living here for an extended period or by an unholy amount of legwork.

The references, after a while, become a burden not dissimilar to those of the far less polished “Shear Madness,” the Kennedy Center's long-running, name-dropping lark.

Perpetually mentioning hot-button topics such as Martha Stewart and Enron gives the piece a pop-culture immediacy that makes one fear how quickly it will become dated. The creators of “Anthems” clearly have affection for the subject matter, but tackling a city as vast as Washington, particularly with September 11 factored in, makes whittling down its spirit a nearly impossible task.


**1/2

WHAT: “Anthems: Culture Clash in the District”

WHERE: Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater

WHEN: Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday matinees at 2:30 p.m. Selected Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., selected Tuesday and Wednesday matinees at noon, through Oct. 13.

TICKETS: $34 to $52

PHONE: 202/488-3300MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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