Before I get to an outright pan of the immoderately irritating Stop Hitting Yourself -- created by Austin's Rude Mechs and now squatting in the Lincoln Center Theater at the Claire Tow -- I'll offer unmitigated praise for the enterprise's one big plus: Mimi Lien's set.
Imagine a Las Vegas hotel lobby where Liberace is just about to perform, and you have an idea. Hanging in a gaudy, gilded multi-leveled room are 17 -- count 'em (I did) 17 -- chandeliers of various configurations. Prominently plopped on the floor are a gold-plated rip-off of Michelangelo's David and a money sign constructed of bulbs -- count 'em (I didn't) -- that Andy Warhol would have only wished he'd painted. There's also a gold piano, it should be needless to say.
Lien's creation is present for all to see and happily wallow in on entering Hugh Hardy's inviting auditorium. And wallowing in what's there to be ogled is the most fun a patron will have once the play proper, or improper, begins. One last thing about the set: Lying downstage on it is a bearded man next to a fallen microphone stand.
He's the actor Thomas Graves, the one who -- after asking help from an audience member so he can regain his footing -- explains he's portraying Wildman and has been taken in for cleaning and civilizing by the other characters. He further announces that when the play ends 90 minutes later, he'll be dead and in his former prone position. Incidentally, before the final fade-out, there's an indication that Wildman is intended to be -- oh, well -- a Christ figure.
Some spectators may realize immediately and some after not too long a time that the hairy, semi-naked man represents those of us who aren't part of the economic echelon that supports such materialistic vulgarity. Few on-lookers won't get that Wildman's death stands for every one of us 99 percent who are ripe to be crushed by the powerful and insensitive one percent.
What the Rude Mechs are after, since they concoct their works in the Lone Star state, is a satire on Texas outlandishness, which may or may not go over in those parts. They depict it by way of Wildman's inclusion at a blowout thrown by Queen (Paul Soileau), who makes a late-ish entrance in a mechanized wheelchair. Yes, her infirmity is a metaphor for her crippled sensibilities.
The ostentatiously bewigged Queen has announced that at the end of the annual gala, there will be a competition, the winner of which will be awarded a good deed of his or her choosing. Aside from Wildman, the competitors are Unknown Prince (Joey Hood), Trust Fund Sister (Hannah Kenah) and hubby Magnate (E. Jason Liebrecht) and Socialite (Lana Lesley). Not vying but close at hand is Maid (Heather Hanna).
Once Wildman sets the proceedings in motion, the members of the ensemble do some tap routines that look as if they've been choreographed for actors whose knowledge of tap is minimal. (No choreographer is credited.) Along the way several of them sing songs (original music by sound designer Graham Reynolds) of no particular note and no particular lyric distinction. Magnate does warble a ditty containing the epiphany "You can't buy hate--you have to earn it."
If you say so.
When not singing or terping, the characters have run-ins with each other as they sashay in deliberately tasteless costumes by Emily Rebholz that build to a gold-lamé parade for the ball Queen twirls in her Palace. ("Palace" is her name for it, not mine.) None of what they say or do while excoriating the obscenely rich is funny or edifying--just tedious and stretched.
Yet another repeated element in the play -- directed by Shawn Sides and written (with the players?) by Kirk Lynn -- has the uncalled for ability to get on an observer's nerves mercilessly. From time to time, the seven cast members come to the front of the stage and deliver confessions that seem to be theirs and not their characters'.
Soileau, for instance, spills the news that when he was 17, he read Ayn Rand's novel The Fountainhead and liked it. Furthermore, he complains that when he mentions this in polite society, he's often chided -- as well he should be, many will think, despite the 12-letter word he ascribes to his detractors. Speaking of Rand: In a program note, the author's novel Anthem gets a mention as part of the inspiration behind Stop Hitting Yourself.
Oddly enough, an unbearable Anthem stage adaptation showed up in Manhattan 27 blocks south only a few months ago. The Rude Mechs undoubtedly know nothing of this, but it's fair warning to the rest of us who think less well of Rand's works than Soileau does.
And attention theater-goers averse to audience participation and/or interactive ingredients: At one point, in a kind of game-show Come-on-Down segment, any ticket-buyer willing to climb onto the stage is offered a dollar. The offer was repeated five times. At the performance I attended, a burly fellow calling himself Jeff (I have no reason to suspect he was a plant), accepted not one but all of the giveaway bucks.. For them Jeff was asked, first, to bark like a dog, which he did, and, last, to strip naked, which he did, modestly cupping his hands over his genitals.
A good guess is that his willingness to do anything for money (and so little money at that) proves to the Rude Mechs that they're on the right satirical path. Well, they're not.