‘Clean Alternatives’: Zen, capitalism collide at the Kitchen

By Sue Henninger
Tompkins Weekly

Clean Alternatives, written by Brian Dykstra and directed by Margarett Perry, at the Kitchen Theatre, through June 18, (607) 272-0570, www.kitchentheatre.org.

Photo by Jeff Lower
Lori Prince, Brian Dykstra and Vince Gatton in Kitchen Theatre Company’s production of “Clean Alternatives” by Brian Dykstra.

This production marks the final curtain call for KTC’s Artistic Director, Rachel Lampert. In her opening remarks, Lampert expressed her pleasure at concluding the 2016-17 season with this timely production where Zen and capitalism collide onstage.

The play opens with Jackie (Lori Prince) sitting at a conference table in a sterile white room, evocative of a hospital waiting room where one expects to be presented with bad news. The door bursts open and two men, attired in business suits immediately accost the hapless woman. With rapid-fire, pithy dialogue, Mr. Cutter (Brian Dykstra) and Mr. Slate (Vince Gatton) banter back and forth, occasionally stopping long enough to tell Jackie not to “screw up” the rhythm of their sales pitch.

It turns out that Jackie owns a business which just happens to be adjacent to two other businesses that are interested in purchasing her “pollution rights” so they can increase their own emissions. When Jackie naively asks why these companies don’t just manufacture their goods the way she does – using no pollutants – the two layers openly scoff at her, asserting “That’s not the way you play the game in corporate America.”

Both men present as unscrupulous, readily acknowledging that they don’t really care about leaving a pristine environment for their great-grandkids; they just hope that nobody realizes the ultimate devastation of the earth is their fault. In the meantime, things like increasing pollutants in the name of economic growth doesn’t really concern either of them as much as their profit margin. As Mr. Cutter remarks, “I know kale is good for me, but I like frosting!”

Jackie ultimately accepts the monetary deal they offer her for her rights. After she leaves, Mr. Slate appears to suffer from a crisis of conscience. In an attempt to lure him back to the dark side, Mr. Cutter shares several metaphorical stories, one about a boating accident with his nephew, another about two tigers and a strawberry, and yet another about his own existential crisis when he sought the guidance of a monk to help him find his peaceful path.

This backfired when the monk finally relayed Mr. Cutter’s divine message to live by to him. “Who cut the cheese?” or, in plainer language, “Who farted?” is not what the corporate lawyer wanted or expected to hear. He was so furious that he had the monk arrested, sued him, and then got him deported. Despite this, Mr. Cutter can’t seem to get the religious guide’s spiritual pronouncement off his mind and the scene ends with him still questioning its meaning.

After a brief intermission, Mr. Slate appears in Jackie’s living room, offering to join her in using her newly acquired wealth to combat industry’s abuse of the environment, to make the world a better place, and ultimately to run for political office on an environmental platform. He claims that he is sick and tired of making money by crushing good people and that he sees her as someone he wants to emulate. His epiphany and dramatic, hand-wringing dialogue in this act offer an interesting contrast to his personae in the first act.

Mr. Cutter shows up at Jackie’s house shortly afterwards. He remains true to his character, challenging what he clearly sees as their Pollyanna-ish views, asserting that facts don’t stand a chance against cold, hard cash and that it’s always about winning. Rather than trying to convince him otherwise, Jackie and Frank Slate choose to leave the house (the table) and Mr. Cutter is left alone, still attempting to decipher the connection between God and passed gas.

Costume designer Lisa Boquist has done an excellent job clothing the attorneys in full business attire, down to Mr. Slate’s three-piece suit and a handkerchief peeking out of Mr. Cutter’s jacket pocket. In contrast, Jackie is unpretentiously dressed in a flowing skirt and long jacket, her hair tied back in a loose ponytail. In the second act, Gatton’s character has adopted more casual attire so as not to conflict with his role change. Set and Lighting Designer Tyler M. Perry cleverly created opposing sets for the two very different acts. Tellingly, a $100 bill serves as a background on the wall for both, reinforcing the message that money is behind everything the actors do and that there is no escaping the almighty dollar. The use of sound and hip hop poetry in the production is invigorating and effective.

This would be a great production to see with friends or relatives as it provides ample opportunity for hours of debate/discussion over dinner or drinks as to what message is being conveyed, be it a need for increased grassroots involvement to protect our natural surroundings from big corporations or the impossibility of finding our true selves when we are overly obsessed with money and power.

This reviewer was left speculating that perhaps the farts Dykstra’s character was preoccupied with represented the noxious emissions given off by the companies he represents. Maybe for those who continuously make poor decisions, interpersonally or relating to the abuse of the environment, there is no escaping the stink. You can run, but you can’t hide from it.