The Dundee Rep production of Robert Softley Gale and Richard Thomas’ bewildering My Right Left Foot is the first show which I’ve ever walked out on during intermission, and for good reason. It can be summed up in the whisper I slipped to my roommate just before my departure: “Terribly written and horribly offensive.” It’s almost as if the writers and producers of this show saw Cheviot alongside us last night, took note of every element which worked so extraordinarily, and proclaimed “Let’s do the exact opposite of all of that!” The dark, ironic humor which landed remarkably well in Cheviot fell as close to the mark as my performance of Lennie in a high school production of Of Mice and Men — which is to say, not at all. Yes, the message the show proffers — that shows should cast disabled actors for disabled parts and not be any more comfortable performing disability than they would doing blackface — is correct. But the way it is delivered is so ham-fisted and simultaneously incomprehensible that it makes one doubt the veracity of the entire endeavor.
Things seemed awry at entry, as, for some reason, there was a keyboardist playing along to what sounded like a pre-recorded track of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” This musical/computerized arrangement continued for several songs, fully three of which were from the soundtrack for My Fair Lady. The audience was old (though not entirely), able-bodied (though not entirely), and white (entirely). The set was full-on realism, though exorbitant amounts of haze billowed through the air from the ceiling above. The vibe could be described as “inconsistent at best” — upon the arrival of the opening number, it became immediately clear that this would apply to the show, as well. Random light cues danced around on the floor of the stage while horridly clunky lyrics by the schmuck who wrote Jerry Springer: The Opera constantly contradicted themselves in tone and characterization. The ASL interpreter onstage is both a character and not, as is the pianist (who at least is decisively not an actor). The words spoken by the actors do not align always with the absurdly distracting text projections on the upper level of center-stage, but it almost doesn’t matter, given how elementary and predictable the words are.
More than anything else, the music just sucked. It was pop-y, ‘80’s-y, repetitive prattle with lyrics as inspired as “It wouldn’t be a bad thing” repeated six times in a row, to the same melody. The actors mainly hit the notes, but the notes were barely distinguishable from one another, save for the titular lyrics repeated to oblivion. These songs were “complemented” by some of the cheapest-looking projections I’ve ever seen. And the songs are punctuated by intentionally offensive moments such as the able-bodied bald actor grunting “urgh urgh urgh” as he tries to get into character as Christy Brown of the original My Left Foot. The thing is this: if it were an audience of disabled actors he were playing to, perhaps it could be funny. But it was not: it was an audience of old, able-bodied people that were laughing at the stereotypes and horrific impressions. A song ends in a refrain, “Dazzling cripple,” said over and over again. Do you think the 80-year-old in front of me was laughing because he realizes the irony of calling a person with CP a cripple right in front of him? No; he’s laughing because they’re calling him a cripple right in front of him.
Another enormous problem with this show is the writing of the two main female characters, Amy and Gillian. Both of these characters are rooted entirely in a voracious appetite for having sex with Chris, the character with actual CP. Each lyric they sing, each action they take, is motivated solely by a desire for this man (Bechdel Test, anyone?). If that weren’t bad enough, it must be said that Chris, talented as he is, does not possess the good looks necessary to justify any sort of believability behind this crazed sexual desire. It is pandering of the worst sort, and it somewhat saddens me to think of the playwright engineering such a transparently self-serving script. It also just saddens me in general to think of this playwright envisioning a world wherein every able-bodied actor acts this irrationally — indeed, no one but Chris seems to have an ounce of good to them, as every character is outrageously ill-mannered and ill-intentioned when it comes to even the most obvious social standards. Supposedly necessary to motivate Chris’ entirely random announcement “I hate other people,” followed by “I hate all you motherfuckers,” the overdone evil of every single other character prevents anyone from actually sympathizing with Chris, as we are simply immersed in a world which is so far from real that nothing actually means squat. And even Chris, for that matter, is a misogynist pig, singing of his friendship with Amy “On condition she goes down on me.” No one is a fully good character, and aside from Chris, everyone is an aggressively bad character. If you’re going to break the fourth wall left and right like in Cheviot, I think that can work, that the audience connection can still be maintained. In the context of a full-length, non-Brechtian musical, it doesn’t, and it can’t.
One of the final lyrical progressions I recorded goes as follows: Amy sings “His CP looks more real than the real CP in Chris.” Then Chris sings, “It hurts to admit he isn’t totally shit.” Then the whole cast sings, “This show is our moment…,” starting off a new verse. All I could write in my notebook was: “???” There is no consistency of lyric to music anymore than there is of line to character (see: Gillian going from orchestrating terribly tasteless CP choreography to suddenly arguing Daniel Day-Lewis is a prick). As the audience hoots with laughter at lyrics as inspired as “You made a big fat promise, and now you break my heart” (seriously a line in this show), I can only wonder what grade the writers were in when they wrote this. Third? Second? I bet they were just precocious first-graders. That would be impressive. That would be worth staying for the second act.
But alas, they were adults, and it was not worth it to stay for the second act. I got the message of the show by the time I saw the poster, and there was no concern for storytelling to sustain any sort of theatricality for more than that split second. My roommate has come back to the room and said, “I think whoever wrote this show just really hates Daniel Day-Lewis.” I concur: this was a show that wanted only to make a point, giving not one hoot for art along the way. I cannot endorse any production which aims to be inclusive for people with disabilities attempting this musical again — please, for the love of God, just incorporate actors with disabilities into an actual story. Don’t just try to mold a political tenet into hackneyed tropes and stale “music” to make a quick buck and maybe get a little famous in the process.