As Steve Martin used to say about comedy, breaking in a new play isn't pretty. At the Ahmanson, for example, we have "Legends!" with Mary Martin and Carol Channing. Playwright James Kirkwood's premise is fine: two down-and-out movie queens who can't abide one other are asked to co-star in the same show. All that "Legends!" needs now is a plot, characters and some good jokes. Does anyone have Neil Simon's phone number?
A more interesting case is Luis Valdez's "I Don't Have to Show You No Stinking Badges" at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. This play also needs help if it wants to "have a life"--that is, go to Broadway. But the help can only come from Valdez. It's his most personal play.
We don't see it at first. Up top, "Badges" is a cheerful Norman Lear-type sitcom about a minority family going for their slice of the American pie--"The Jeffersons" with a Chicano twist. Here, though, the scene is Hollywood and the family business is acting.
Buddy and Connie Villa (James Victor and Anne Betancourt) are bit players in The Industry. They never get speaking roles, but they're working all the time: a couple of days on "Dynasty" here, a phone-company commercial there. OK, the roles aren't much--maids, gardeners, whores, riffraff. But Connie lives by the gospel of Hattie McDaniel: "I'd rather play a maid than be one."
The Villas don't have a maid, but they could have had one. Rather than go for the Beverly Hills life style, they'd rather stick to Monterey Park and salt their residuals away for their kids' education. They've sent their daughter through medical school and practically seen their son through law school--Harvard Law School, if you please.
The Villas have got it together. But then the guacamole hits the fan. Sonny (Robert Beltran) comes home with the news that he has dropped out of Harvard and now intends to become a movie star. With him is a beautiful girl named Anita. Anita Sakai (Patti Yasutake). What do you do with a kid like that? You hit him, is what you do.
So far, so good. The wisecracks, the brightly lit kitchen/living room set, the sense that everything's basically OK with this American family--all these may be derived from the half-hour TV situation comedy. But Valdez doesn't seem to be commenting on the form, as David Rabe did with the Ozzie-and-Harriet figures in "Sticks and Bones."
Rather, Valdez seems to accept the sitcom frame and to build what reality he can within it, exactly as a good TV comedy writer would do. In the first act, he builds well. A few of the wisecracks fall short, but a lot of them are funny, and it doesn't seem strange that Buddy and Connie would go in for wisecracks, being in the biz.
But they're parents first, and that's where the act's real humor comes from. Try as they will to be sympathetic when their honor-student son comes home from school with some vague complaint about being burned out, the concept isn't within their ken. "What about all the Koreans around here!" Buddy rages. "You don't see their kids burning out!"
Equally funny is Sonny's rhetoric, both when he's transcribing his inner-most thoughts to his tape recorder and when his Dad gets him in a corner. "I've grown inured to your vituperative displays," he informs Buddy in a highly superior manner, and we can see Buddy wishing that he'd spent all the kid's tuition money at the track. The college boy putting on airs with his family goes back at least as far as Holberg's "Erasmus Montanus," ca. 1700. It's still funny, because it still applies.
Besides the laughs, "Badges" promises to be that rare thing, a Los Angeles play. It's not just the references to Monterey Park and Equity Waiver theater (which Buddy and Connie don't do, since there's no money in it.) These are Southern California parents, worrying about their kid driving west in a blizzard and wondering if he's going to be able to compete in the job market with those hard-working Asian kids.
It's also a rare look at Hollywood from the little guy's point of view--a place where you go off to work every day in order to earn a buck. Not that Connie and Buddy don't have the usual actors' vanity. But underneath they're as practical as auto workers. Stars come and stars go (Buddy knew Bogie), but bit players go on forever.
Great fun, all of this. At intermission, you're wondering if Valdez will go on with it. He doesn't, alas. Act II of "Badges" undergoes a kind of stylistic nervous breakdown, akin to that suffered by Sonny, whose problem goes far deeper than burnout. It seems that he cracked up at Harvard--felt himself toppling off the hyphen in the middle of the phrase "Mexican-American" into the psychic abyss beneath.
"Psychic abyss" is the kind of phrase that appeals to Sonny, and we hear a lot of that kind of high-flown rhetoric in Act II, where, it could be, Valdez is grappling with some early memories of himself as a young man. These sections are the most intently felt part of the play, but also the most muddled.