If Samuel Beckett were alive today, he might focus a play on an American treasure transformed into a tourist trap and toxic waste dump. But the message of Niagara Falls, presented recently by Broken Habit Productions at Theatre at St. Claude, is a more dismal existential vision.
Niagara Falls is written in the form of theater of the absurd, which takes a dark comedic approach to horrific themes and hopeless situations. The style creates a dull, lifeless landscape with one-dimensional characters, and by design, Niagara Falls' plot is monotonous with only repetitive, mundane activity, forcing the audience to dig below the surface. Underlying banal conversation are vague allusions to loss of social responsibility, morality and integrity.
Conceived by University of New Orleans assistant professor Justin Maxwell, Niagara Falls tells the story of a city destroyed by neglect, poverty and pollution, which could describe many urban environments abandoned by industry and left to deteriorate. Its suburb, Love Canal, is reeling from an environmental disaster resulting from the construction of homes and schools on land where chemical waste was dumped. Love Canal residents develop leukemia, and their neighborhood is demolished.
Producer Jim Fitzmorris is repugnant as the amoral mayor of Niagara Falls, a city that's been in decline for decades. The mayor is no civic booster but a profiteer. Allowing the convention center to be turned into a casino, he invests in plywood to board up failing businesses as they shut down. A series of wives (Margeaux Fanning) march into his dreary, wood-paneled office and declare their intention to leave. His mistress (Bunny Love) also visits to perform barely concealed sex on his desk.
"I'm the most consistent thing in your life," she says.
Suddenly, a haggard British soldier (Kyle Woods) appears wearing a tattered red uniform, dating from the French and Indian War. In 1763, King George sent new uniforms and this boy was a drummer. The sole survivor of his regiment, he is confused and dismayed to learn the Brits lost Canada. The pristine wilderness he fought for has become a travesty.
"Why are there so many bodies in the whirlpool?" the soldier repeatedly asks. "The fur trade made so much money!"
Indeed, with all its natural resources, why can't the United States do better? Half the population of Niagara Falls lives in poverty, and the suicide rate is rising.
Maxwell intentionally makes the mayor, his mistress, the casino owner and the wife nameless, soulless characters trapped in a seemingly futile existence. The soldier is charmingly naive, repeating his question in hopes of a different answer. Fitzmorris and Love are marvelously sleazy, small-town types deserving of little admiration.
Ironically, the mayor's trashy mistress dreams of Canada, where she can be free. But free of what?
Niagara Falls offers no big laughs or easy conclusions. Maxwell poses uneasy philosophical and environmental questions about the American way of life and the ideals our forefathers fought to achieve.