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Tucson playwright W. Jessee Greenberg's "Pushing the Envelope" laughs into the void.

By Zachary Woodruff

MARCH 9, 1998:  I'VE HEARD PEOPLE wonder aloud why so many postal workers "go postal"--as if it's this huge mystery. Isn't it obvious? Really, the question should be, "Why don't they all go postal?" Because when you think about it, what could be worse than devoting your working life to handling mountainous piles of other people's mail? It's not to you, you can't read it, and it never, ever stops. It's one thing to watch your own life passing you by, but postal workers have to watch other people's lives going by, constantly. Stop the insanity!

Unfortunately for any postal workers who might be looking for a relaxing night out at the theatre, Pushing the Envelope, a new work from local playwright W. Jesse Greenberg, isn't about stopping any insanity. Instead the play wallows, frolics, and revels in insanity like a smart-assed kid tormenting a younger brother. Our Town this ain't: There's no plot, there's little form and the three main characters remain vague. Yes, it's one of those plays meant to communicate not a story or a theme, but (eek!) a state of mind.

...If you can call it communication. Like the letters the three main characters toss into baskets throughout the play, Pushing the Envelope deals almost entirely in "missives"--short messages and idea fragments designed to have a cumulative effect. Some of the bits hint at insights regarding anonymity and loss of identity in the Information Age. Others are mere blasts of wit: jokes and wordplay, random thoughts, and periodical disruptions from a soullessly upbeat announcer (wonderfully delivered, via the magic of tape-recording, by Dean Hepker), who belts out such morale-boosting slogans as "Remember, all the colors of the rainbow add up to the Postal Service gray."

Speaking of gray, it's everywhere. The play's set consists of nothing more than a brick wall, a concrete floor and several drab, grayish bins for organizing letters. And the gray's not just visual: While the characters are working, an annoying hum permeates the background; when they're on break outside (using the same set slightly adjusted), the sound of cars washes over everything. The only punctuation is the occasional sound of screeching tires or loud music--followed by the curses of the characters. Even the boss who silently monitors the workers wears a translucent mask that erases any hint of expression from her face. For Pushing the Envelope's characters, life is just the same, perpetual pattern of gray sights, sounds and feelings.

The characters, such as they are, consist of a terse but seethingly angry former White Aryan Nation member (Chris Olander), a pregnant and oft-complaining redhead (Shelly Rao), and a chipper but hopelessly passive-aggressive nice guy (Mark Hampton). Each performer does solid work here, but it's Hampton, in the most sympathetic and well-defined role, who is central to the play's effectiveness. To make a movie-land comparison, Hampton has the gangly physique of Tom Noonan and the falsely confident delivery of Peter Weller--certainly a combination well-suited to "going postal."

The three actors have a great time with cute lines like "Disgruntled, what's disgruntled? I'm gruntled"; and a prolonged scene in which they furiously throw mail all over the stage. The audience is also well-serviced by the double-speaking shenanigans of Halsy-Taylor and Christina Walker, as two psychiatrists whose job it is to interview all the workers and determine which will go you-know-what next. Played with gusto by Taylor and Walker, the shrinks get right up in the front row's face and, through overly pointed questions, gradually reveal their own lack of sanity.

W. Jesse Greenberg obviously had a ball coming up with the clever slogans, quips and slices of rancid dialogue that make up the insanity pizza that is Pushing the Envelope. He might have provided a little more substance in terms of serious ideas; but perhaps it's better that a play which touches on so many subjects (the meaninglessness of love, the widening gap between economic classes, the general sense of being trapped by life) only provides a taste. If it gave us all that to chew on, we'd probably gag.

Pushing the Envelope is kind of like what would happen if Eric Bogosian turned 1984 into a zany performance piece with no beginning, middle, or end; or if John Paul Sartre rewrote No Exit using the manic, sardonic screenwriting style of Oliver Stone. There's pessimism, frustration and inchoate rage to spare, but Pushing the Envelope also wants us to laugh. It's an odd combination: I snickered at the gags, yet couldn't help feeling relieved when it was all over. For the insanity, the choking insanity, had finally stopped.


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