The Essential Theatre Play Festival’s “The Local,” at Actor’s Express through August 3, attempts to take a comprehensive look at the city of Atlanta through a variety of short forms: comic skits, dramatic scenes, monologues, poetry, dance and song.
It’s an interesting idea — the city itself is too seldom the subject of investigation by local artists — but the emphasis here veers too much toward the earnestly sentimental and easily nostalgic, and the humor feels more familiar and hackneyed than it should.
There are cute bits — a song about Atlanta traffic, a busboy’s monologue, personifications of Peachtree and West Peachtree streets hashing it out — but there are too few moments of genuine recognition, where the drama and humor hit to the bone, though we can certainly feel the whole thing straining to try. Rather than feeling that we’ve seen some genuine “Atlantaness,” we end up with pretty familiar universal tropes: a reminiscing grandma (knitting in a rocking chair in a shawl, no less), an 11-year-old who speaks like a CEO at a board meeting, a homeless man with a heartwarming message, a sassy drag queen. One of the show’s strongest and most distinct dramatic pieces, a monologue about a girl’s first encounter with death, seems only tangentially related to the theme of life in Atlanta.
Although a flashback to mid-century Atlanta is nicely imagined, its central action — a visit to the Cyclorama that’s overwhelmingly emotional and transformative — strains credulity. (Maybe some people are overcome, but I found it hard to accept.) Weighty social issues — pollution, violence in housing projects, immigration, homelessness — are trotted out as weighty social issues and shown to be weighty social issues. And it was downright odd to have a video of what was essentially an ad for the Beltline/T-SPLOST vote at the beginning of Act II and a re-enacted interview with the “Phantom of the Fox” that would make a nice promotion for that theater. Atlanta’s boosterism comes in for a drubbing a bit later: thespian, heal thyself.
Atlanta and its places are identified — place names are dropped fast and furious — but sustaining a sense of connection and cohesiveness to it all proves difficult. There’s variety in the show — song, some cool hip-hop dance, comedy, drama — but there’s an overemphasis on monologue, which keeps things feeling static and confined, as if we’re being addressed the whole time.
I occasionally found myself wanting to follow some of the characters, such as the girl who spoke about death. And the busboy seemed interesting when he wasn’t lecturing. But there’s an effort at comprehensiveness — to include every demographic — that neglects the possibility to learn about the city by following one story rather than attempting to tell them all.
Could it be that Atlanta itself is just too big and disparate to become, on its own, the satisfying subject of a single evening’s entertainment? It’s daring of someone to try, but it’s possible that it’s just impossible. And at a little over two and a half hours, “The Local” seems too long. If anything, it should be spry and quick enough to run the Peachtree with a more impressive time.