“Greensward,” a broad comedy by local playwright R. Hamilton Wright, at 12th Avenue Arts, pits a naive scientist who discovers a new kind of grass seed against government agents and lawn-products billionaires.
For my money, “Revenge of the Lawn” — a 1960s short story by Northwest writer Richard Brautigan — has the funniest title in American literature. It implies so many questions: Can a lawn have a concept of revenge? What would it be avenging? And how would it avenge itself? Grow very quickly one night and suffocate everyone in the household while they sleep?
Brautigan’s story is actually about the absence of a lawn. Among other things, it concerns loneliness; a dirt patch in front of a grandmother-bootlegger’s house; and a pack of geese that get so drunk on grandma’s leftover liquor mash, they pass out and don’t notice they’re being plucked for dinner until they wake up, denuded.
In “Greensward,” by local playwright and actor R. Hamilton Wright at 12th Avenue Arts, the lawn is a force, not an absence, and it wreaks revenge — but not how you’d expect.
Through July 29, MAP Theatre at 12th Avenue Arts, 1620 12th Ave., Seattle; choose your own price from $5-$50 (800-838-3006 or brownpapertickets.com).
In Wright’s play, a naive but well-meaning scientist stumbles across a new kind of grass seed that needs no pesticides, almost no mowing, and is capable of asexual reproduction. The agronomist-protagonist becomes an overnight celebrity and attracts a platoon of corporate cowboys, government agents and hired strongmen who want to kill the project — by either buying off or threatening the scientist.
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“The people I represent are in the food business,” one corporate strongman says to the scientist with a menacing smile. “They want to feed the world.” He pauses and drops the smile. “They don’t want the world to feed itself.”
“Greensward” borrows a little from Noel Coward and a little from Bertolt Brecht: It’s broad comedy with a pie-in-the-sky love story, but with political teeth. The scientist’s name is Dr. Timothy Hei (hardy-har — did I mention the comedy was broad?), played with doe-eyed surprise by Kevin Lin, who seems consistently shocked that lawnmower tycoons and agribusiness emperors feel threatened by his discovery.
The play begins with the horn flourish from Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” while Dr. Hei stands on a stage with nine lengths of turf and contemplates the push-mower he once used to tend the family yard. “I hated that lawn,” he admits. “I hated mowing it. I hated edging it and thatching it and feeding it. The darn thing just never stopped growing.”
His excitement about a new kind of grass that doesn’t need much mowing seems a little Freudian.
Wright, the playwright, said he also grew up mowing his parents’ lawn: “And, being a teenager, I hated it. That’s about the only personal connection I have with the story. Except for the fact that like most sons, I didn’t want to disappoint my father.”
The satire can be a little wocka-wocka, but the actors (directed by Richard Ziman) mostly pull it off. Ashley Bagwell plays a sack full of entertaining zanies, from a bolo-tie-wearing lawn magnate who seems like a “yee-haw!” burlesque of Oklahoma financier T. Boone Pickens to a conservative talk-radio host. (Host: “Come on, doctor, don’t hide behind ten-dollar words. Speak plain to the real America!” Dr. Hei: “Uh …” Host: “That’s better!”)
Peggy Gannon waltzes through a more subtle performance as Dr. Hei’s new publicist and love interest — she expertly alternates between unctuous and sandpaper as circumstances require, like any good PR agent.
“Greensward” feels like a contemporary version of old vaudeville, using archetypes to smash at contemporary problems: the naive truth-seeker running up against corporate greed, governmental complacence and hired thugs to do the dirty work.
But Wright said he wrote his first draft of “Greensward” in the late 1990s: “There’s nothing intentionally current about the play at all. It’s pretty simplistic, actually, but this production once again reminds me that actors and a director and designers can bring things out of a text that didn’t seem to be there from the beginning.”
Maybe some kinds of comedy — and some kinds of political problems — never go out of style.