A commercial, if it’s a good one, will do a few things: 1) Grab your interest 2) Make the product look good – or surround the product with other things that look good 3) Include an addictive catch phase 4) Tell a complete story that wouldn’t exist without the product 5) Finish up in under sixty seconds.
Avenue of the Americas, a play all about how advertising can affect society – specifically one very impressionable young woman – is a lot like a commercial. It’s interesting, looks good, is full of recognizable catch phrases, and finishes up in under sixty minutes. And, like a commercial, the initial message simply acts as window dressing for the real message hidden beneath.
Young Katie White (Laura Yost) didn’t have the best of childhoods – orphaned at a young age after a brutal accident took her parents, she grew up in a mental hospital with the TV as her best friend. Weaned on commercials and using catchphrases as conversations starters she convinces herself that she’s the head of her own advertising agency. Come to think of it – she’s not that much different than most kids whose overworked parents left them emotionally orphaned and doomed to be cared for by a babysitting television set. Who cares if this winds up churning out a generation of commercial-quoting kiddies? They’ll have whiter teeth, shinier hair, and be able to mop up that spill faster than the woman standing right next to them who also managed to spill something but is holding an inferior brand of paper towel. At least that’s what seems to be the underlying message of Avenue of the Americas.
In the character of Katie, playwright Martin Blank gives us a tabula rasa through which he shows us what our daily interactions might look like if we overtly parroted back all the subliminal messages we’re receiving (and even giving) throughout the day. Katie’s behavior is laughable but really – the larger point here is that advertising in and of itself is doing no less a job on all of us, we’re just making those brand-associated statements a little less obviously. Truth is, even as commercials are forced to become more wily in order to stay at the forefront of our media they’re having no less effect on our subliminal process.
The story of how Katie (in a Being There send up) manages to wrangle the top position at an advertising agency with absolutely zero experience save for what she’s observed and absorbed from years of television watching is engaging enough. She does this by using very little else but catchphrases and short phrases she appropriates from random people. This dovetails with the overall theme nicely. Again, in order to sell the product you need to create a story that wouldn’t exist without the thing you’re selling. And what Blank is selling here is the concept of a society that makes choices based on whatever is most hummable, repeatable, or distracting.
What makes Avenue of the Americas work is director Katherine M. Carter’s pacing. Each scene is served up in a palatable sixty second-ish dollop that gets you where you need to go without giving any thing extra. Each scene opens, makes its point, and bam! you’re on to the next one. In between these scenes sometimes actual representational commercials are offered up – fun, cute, quick – showing us exactly the type of commercials that would come from the mind of a gal who’s been locked away in a mental ward until the age of 30 who now gets to create ads for a living. In other words, they’re not all that different than commercials you’ve seen already this week.
Bringing the whole production together is the terrific design team who created a polished look and feel. Using very simple elements the lighting (Dan Jobbins) sound (Jillian Marie Walker) and projection (John Jalandoni) designers have the show humming along nicely, and give the piece a unique ambiance.
Like a commercial, on the surface, Avenue of the Americas will go down easily and not make much of an initial impact. But subliminally, it will sharpen your awareness to exactly how infused our society has become with soundbites, false ideals and jingles. Scratch the surface of Avenue of the Americas, and you’ll find a stronger message hidden in between the lines. And now, back to our show.
~~~Avenue of the Americas Written by Martin Blank Directed by Katherine M. Carter . The Tank 354 W. 45th Street New York, NY . Performances: Wed, 01/26/2011 – 7:30pm Sun, 01/30/2011 – 7:30pm Wed, 02/02/2011 – 7:30pm Sun, 02/06/2011 – 7:30pm . Click Here for tickets