Luxury is the main target of Stop Hitting Yourself, the new production of the Rude Mechs ensemble running through Feb. 23 at Lincoln Center Theater’s black-box Claire Tow Theater, but it’s not just the high living who are in the crosshairs. The seven-person cast repeatedly breaks the fourth wall to remind you that even the average audience member should feel guilty about leaving Trader Joe’s and not stopping to give pocket change to the homeless. Guilt is the M.O. here, and we’re reminded of it over and over again in this clever but belabored 90-minute meditation on decadence.
Pygmalion-like in its simplicity, the story takes place at a ”charity” ball thrown by a scene-stealing Queen (Paul Soileau) — a boozy, Botoxed, scooter-bound doyenne who annually awards one good deed to a worthy candidate. A bickering couple of socialites have each groomed their champions: one, an exiled Prince who believes ”the greatest indicator of wealth is tastelessness,” and the other, a barefoot Wildman ripped away from his simple life. We’re meant to identify with the unrefined Wildman who, when not vilifying the lavishness on display, frequently warns of humanity’s depletion of nature (he carries around a green plant, lest we be confused).
Certainly, one of theater’s many missions is to reflect the zeitgeist. But what begins as a smart and promising look at the disparities of wealth ends up getting bogged down in its own self-help proselytizing. ”Look at the rich! Look how silly they are, how vapid!” The proclamation is Swarovski-crystal clear, but there’s no emotional gut punch, no great epiphany that elevates the preaching and resonates with you after you leave the theater. The characters lack subtlety as they forcefully opine on the themes, thereby creating a very belabored take-it-or-leave-it message that doesn’t so much challenge as it does sermonize.
Despite its heavy-handedness, the show is largely entertaining, and each cast member is game for the madness. The narrative is peppered with suitably silly tap numbers and a few moments of ingenious audience interaction that serve as the evening’s highlights (one memorable segment begs the question ”What would you do for a dollar?” and the results are quite surprising). Design-wise, Mimi Lien’s golden set (replete with 17 chandeliers, a giant money sign, and shimmering queso flowing like liquid gold) is a wonder to behold, and Emily Rebholz’s costumes are a period-less ode to debonair.
But by the evening’s end, when the entire cast has stripped down to their underwear for a massive queso fight, it becomes evident that the play’s biggest problem is in trying to deliver a serious message while also eschewing any seriousness whatsoever. It’s on only one of these fronts that this zany performance strikes gold. B?