BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
A would-be satirical musical that opened on Thursday at the Westside Theater, “The Last Smoker in America” considers a United States where cigarettes are outlawed and smokers face draconian prison terms.
Writer Bill Russell's premise is a promising notion for a comical look at civil liberties threatened in a Big Brother world. Too bad that Russell confines his story to a single suburban family's woes and then treats them in a relentlessly silly manner.
Such nonsense might be okay amid the harum-scarum doings of the New York International Fringe Festival (where the show bowed in 2009), but it makes for an awfully trivial Off Broadway attraction.
The smoker of the title is Pam (Farah Alvin), a middle-aged housewife whose nicotine habit is fired by stress (cue “How Can I Quit Now?”) over her useless spouse Ernie (John Bolton), a wanna-be rock star (“Straight White Man”). They have a video-addicted teen son Jimmy (Jake Boyd), who postures as a black rapper (“Gangsta”). Their neighbor Phyllis (Natalie Venetia Belcon) is an over-caffeinated church lady (“Let the Lord Be Your Addiction”) who sniffs out wicked smokers while sniffing around Ernie.
Civic pressure drives Pam underground. She resurfaces a year later to find Ernie and Phyllis shacked up and Jimmy exploring his feminine side. What can a smoking mother do?
Set entirely in a kitchen, this 90-minute domestic cartoon is embellished by some 20 songs by Russell and composer Peter Melnick. A pretty “Hangin' Out in a Smoky Bar” is a nostalgic duet for Pam and Ernie about their younger days but mostly the songs are broad comedy numbers with zero satirical bite.
The four performers tackle all this taffy with strong, flexible voices and lend everything a professional sheen that reflects director Andy Sandberg's production, which boasts better design elements than the shoddy material deserves. The ashtray looks fine but contains nothing of interest.
“The Last Smoker in America” continues at the Westside Theater, 407 W. 43rd St., New York. Call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.lastsmoker.com.