407 W. 43rd St.
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com
Running Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
NEW YORK—When it goes for the heart (or for the jugular), the new Off-Broadway musical “The Last Smoker in America” (book and lyrics by Bill Russell, music by Peter Melnick) strongly hits home. This all-too-timely work shows what happens when one person’s rights get in the way of government overreach, all in the name of keeping people safe from themselves.
In the not-to-distant future, smoking has been banned, with penalties for offenders increasing by the day. Finding herself on the wrong side of the law is suburban wife Pam (Farah Alvin), who can’t kick the habit no matter how she tries.
Pam can’t kick the habit despite the efforts of her ex-smoker husband Ernie (John Bolton), who spends most of his time in the basement, determined to become a rock star.
Pam also deals with their neighbor Phyllis (Natalie Venetia Belcon), a charter member of the smoke police, who’s intent on catching any suspected offender in the act of lighting up.
Yet no matter the danger from the law or to her own marriage, Pam finds that she just can’t quit. Actually, she doesn’t really want to—she believes that smoking relaxes her. Plus, she reasons, if she wants to risk suffering the myriad of illnesses that comes with puffing away, that’s her choice and no one should deprive her of it.
Figuring she can’t be the only one who still smokes, Pam decides to start a revolutionary movement in order to preserve her right to that nicotine high.
In an especially nice touch, which channels elements of “1984” and “Fahrenheit 451,” the show includes a machine at Pam and Ernie’s house that continually announces the latest penalties for anyone caught smoking; as well as the introduction of “smoke bots,” devices designed to seek out cigarette smoke wherever it arises.
Unfortunately, the musical all too often tries for the easy laugh, settling for parody and caricature instead of sticking with the satirical and the hard questions that exist underneath.
One of the main problems is the presentation of Phyllis, shown as a stereotypical Bible-thumping hypocrite, where anything she says becomes the immediate object of ridicule.
Also not really working is the character of Jimmy (Jake Boyd), Ernie and Pam’s son, who thinks he’s black and wants to be the next great rapper. He ultimately becomes a character that exists to pad the story rather than add depth to it.
On the positive side, Alvin is wonderful as Pam, a woman determined to smoke simply because she enjoys it and, like most people in her situation, absolutely refuses to believe that she has become the dreaded “A” word (addict).
Also, unlike Phyllis and Jimmy, when Pam goes over the top, there’s a reason for her doing so. In one scene, for instance, she shows the importance of cigarettes in her life.
Bolton is great in the role of Ernie, proving there’s nothing worse to a nicotine addict than another smoker who just quit, as Ernie demonstrates when he catches Pam smoking in the closet.
Direction by Andy Sandberg is rather uneven, as is the choreography by AC Ciulla, both allowing some moments and performances to go bigger than they need be. This problem is especially evident in the final scenes where the show goes for an easy, though not obvious, solution in order to wrap things up quickly.
“The Last Smoker in America” certainly has its share of interesting moments, but it ultimately fails to be as powerful or as pointed as it could.
Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.
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