Andrew Shanks’ “ACME” lets the audience in to the famous company that supplied anvils and invisible paint in the old “Looney Tunes” ’toons.
How can you not love Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner? Paragons of tightly channeled comic anarchy, those “Looney Tunes” shorts take a single comic premise and elastically reshape it over and over.
That singlemindedness is one of the reasons the cartoons endure. The slapstick essence has been distilled to its purest form — coyote chases bird, his failures exacerbated by ludicrously designed devices. That’s it. No backstory necessary or wanted.
So, it’s a little difficult to get behind the premise of Andrew Shanks’ new play “ACME,” which takes us inside the inner workings of the Acme Corporation, the mail-order manufacturer of all those anvils and dehydrated boulders and invisible paint.
by Andrew Shanks. Through May 20, Annex Theatre, Seattle; $5-$20 (206-728-0933 or annextheatre.org).
On one hand, the play wants to stand apart from its inspiration, and it does so as a pseudo-futuristic workplace comedy that feels highly indebted to cult sitcom “Better Off Ted,” where a transparently evil conglomerate has all sorts of improbable technological advances go awry. In “ACME,” there’s a disintegration ray that won’t quite work right and a teleportation mishap that gets a worker stuck in a wall and nicotine-patchlike “upgrades” that have some unintended side effects on their human subjects. (In a more obvious nod to our current tech boom, there’s also a brogrammer.)
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On the other hand, “ACME” spends so much time in Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner’s universe (evoked nicely by Jenna Ryan’s cutout designs), it starts to feel like fan fiction. Though Marcus Gorman’s coyote and Emma Wilkinson’s bird (complete with a spot-on “meep, meep!”) are certainly entertaining, their prominent inclusion feels like another unnecessary gizmo added on to an already overloaded Rube Goldberg machine.
Directed by Mary Hubert, Annex Theatre’s production is consistently amusing, but not much more than that. In-jokes about “Looney Tunes” animator Friz Freleng and mastermind Chuck Jones provoke knowing smiles, not laughs, and even in its most physical exchanges, the show’s pacing never quite ramps up to a higher gear.
Shanks’ script offers us two audience surrogates: Jules (a breezily confident Nabilah Ahmed), a new intern with some secret family history, and Jackie (Jordi Montes), a journalist intent on exposing the seedy underbelly of Acme, led by Lyam White’s ominously cheerful Avery (nickname “Tex,” perhaps?).
While Jackie gets the runaround from various Acme personnel, including an imperious Lexi (Mandy Rose Nichols), Jules intrigues and exasperates an odd-couple lab partner pair, Remy and Dee (Madison Jane Jones and Gianni Truzzi). Dee is a consummate rule follower, happily dependent on Acme for his every need, while Remy bristles at any whiff of authoritarianism.
Eventually, Jules discovers a portal to a cartoon dimension, but embedded among such wackiness is a germ of a critique of capitalism. Acme’s policy of planned obsolescence extends far beyond its products, and that consideration of a dehumanized world lends some weight to an otherwise gossamer show. But it’s just a germ; the satirical edges could use some sharpening.
Inviting comparisons to the expert comedic efficiency of “Looney Tunes” is perhaps a recipe for disappointment, but even on its own terms, “ACME” is a show that’s better at identifying avenues for comedy than actually taking them.