In Brief

One of the most pretentious and inane movies I’ve seen was Jesus’ Son, from a story by Denis Johnson. One of the most pretentious and inane plays is Shoppers Carried by Escalators Into the Flames by Denis Johnson. I’ll grant him one talent: arresting titles. Shoppers is a mix of trailer-trash naturalism (inane) and surreal elements (pretentious). The merely inane or merely pretentious is iffy; combined, they’ll hook both the fools and the snobs, and guarantee success.

Shoppers concerns a trashy Texas family transplanted to the California boondocks. They are dys- or dis- everything: -functional, -combobulated, -gusting. Above all, they are programmatically weird. Dad is anchored to his bed, soaking up the upstairs TV. His first wife deliberately ran over their baby, and left; he missed her so much he married again. That he still missed wife No. 1 made No. 2 leave. Now he has only bed and TV.

Grandma has her microwave crackling with popcorn, her mouth with corny pop wisdom. Dad’s loutish sons are Cass, an alkie, and Bro, a gun-toting ex-jailbird. Cass sponges off Dad; Bro has moved in with Marcy, a farm-owning retardate for whom he does odd jobs, shagging included. In comes Suzanne, Bro’s ex-wife, with her nerdy fiancé, Gib, of whom Bro is murderously jealous. The downstairs TV keeps announcing fire in an underground mall.

Upstairs, Dad is joined by his dreary daughter, Marigold, who crawls into bed with him to watch TV. These TVs talk back at folks to sass them, or sing silly ditties to soothe them. Gib rouses a hippie minister at midnight to marry him and Suzanne; enraged, Bro almost shoots Gib, but shoots instead the downstairs TV, which is no less obnoxious.

And so on. Whenever Johnson runs out of ideas, he throws in an invisible chihuahua that keeps maddeningly yapping. If he were a young playwright bent on a splash, why not? But he is 53, a much published poet, playwright, and novelist, garlanded with prizes. Why?

The acting ranges from befuddled to execrable. David Levine’s direction has the staggers. The producers, who also gave us Jesus’ Son, are busy adapting Johnson’s novel Resuscitation of a Hanged Man. Rather than for resuscitating the hanged, I am for hanging the resuscitators.

Shoppers Carried by Escalators Into the Flames
premiere, Off Broadway, of a new play by Denis Johnson.

In Brief