When Bruce Jay Friedman penned Steambath in 1970, his novels and short stories had already made him the acknowledged poster boy of black humor, and his first off-Broadway foray, Scuba Duba, had run for nearly 20 months.
Back then, the comedy-satire presenting God as a Puerto Rican bath house attendant was a relative flop, as Steambath ran for less than four months. Very likely, the absurdism that has struck audiences as profound and the nudity that communities such as Charlotte found shocking — at least when Steambath played here in 1987 — was already pretty ho-hum up in Gotham. Two flamingly gay guys in boas and towels, gleaming in steam, as we see in the current Carolina Actors Studio Theatre production? Greenwich Village would have collectively yawned.
Steambath was still rather risqué in Banktown when it was one of the early guerilla operations by the Simmonses in their Victory Pictures days at the Neighborhood Theatre. We have presumably grown wiser now after Full Monty and the historic Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction, so in 2010, we're better equipped to focus on why time has been so kind to Steambath.
Friedman's vision of afterlife still resonates with us because, instead of the cloudy philosophy of Scripture, Steambath is built upon the bedrock philosophy of insurance companies. Up in Friedman's yonder, there's no God of Judgment or God of Grace. Morté the bath attendant has a certain theatrical flair, elevated to charisma by virtue of his awesome power. He's not so much inscrutable as plain thick, honestly believing that he can prove his godhead with a cheap card trick.
As the spirit moves him, Morté looks in on our planet and metes out death and disaster by whim instead of wisdom. J.R. Adduci plays the role amid the grandest, most Grecian surroundings we've seen for this play. Yet paradoxically, he issues his orders to a clunky oscilloscope with feedback and interference that might plague a CB radio. Even the far fleshier Simon Frederick, the God of the 1987 Saturday Night Leftovers production at Spirit Square, barked his commands into a TV screen. So did Robert Simmons when he starred at the Neighborhood, but here he's the set designer. By opting for a more ancient technology, Simmons sets Adduci up with a seedier — perhaps more eternal — operation for wielding his caprices.
Adduci's accent is probably the best we've had for Morté, but the costume design by Autumn Dawn points up the brutish similarity between the bath attendant and Stanley Kowalski, a role Adduci played earlier this year. Compared with Frederick and Simmons, Adduci may be less fearsome, particularly after the campy entrance director Michael Simmons has created for him. What sets this God apart is how much he just doesn't care about us.
Christian Casper, not seen in Charlotte since he presided over Shear Madness, is a more tender and vulnerable cop as Tandy, outraged at the absurdity of his death just when he had set himself straight. But the comedy comes from the old-timers: Jim Esposito as a garrulous former cab driver, Bill McNeff as a farting bestial slob, and the duo of Buddy Hanson and Alexis Casanovis — gay lovers who speak (and lip-synch) in perfect unison. Shannon Wightman-Girard is the naked vision who brings extra steam to the shower stall, a sexy diversion — and confidant — for Tandy as he and we learn the ropes.