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A scene from (I Am) Nobody's Lunch
(Photo © Leslie Lyon)
The Bush administration admits to wiretapping the private phone conversations of thousands of U.S. citizens without warrants. Journalism scandals involving the widespread falsification of news reports seem to be unearthed every few months, and even James Frey's memoir A Million Little Pieces -- a best seller due to its selection by Oprah for her book club -- was recently revealed to be less than completely truthful. Is it any wonder that the American public is increasingly mistrustful? The downtown theater kids known as The Civilians have been mulling over this issue, and now they're uptown at 59E59 Theater sharing their thoughts in a high-octane cabaret show titled (I Am) Nobody's Lunch.

All of the material in the show has been gleaned from actual interviews, and it is by turns funny and shocking. In one running gag, The Civilians call every "Jessica Lynch" they can find in the phone book and ask the women if they know the true facts about the American soldier whose name they share. (Most of them are only familiar with the "made for TV" account of her story). There's an eye-opening interview with an unhappy INS employee who was transferred to the Department of Homeland Security after September 11. In the most disturbing scene, a reservist on security duty at a New York City train station says that he's merely there to instill confidence in riders and admits that his gun is not even loaded.

This is not exactly the type of subject matter that makes you want to sing and dance, but that's exactly what The Civilians do. In a number called "It's Scary How Easy It Is," blind faith in the government is compared to belief in a religious cult. As for the "Song of Progressive Disenchantment," its title is more or less self-explanatory. There is also a vaudevillian slapstick routine about our fear of suspicious packages. But what makes I Am Nobody's Lunch stand out from some other recent political diatribes is its refusal to talk down to the audience. The troupe mirrors our feelings of bewilderment and helplessness at a time when the institutions we trust are losing credibility, yet they do not give in to despair; the show ends with the suggestion that we citizens have the responsibility to cry foul at injustice even when our sources of information are far from reliable.

Steven Cosson's writing and direction is detailed, intelligent, and engaging, while Michael Friedman's catchy music and lyrics demonstrate that the revue format can still be vital. Karinne Keithley's choreography deliberately calls attention to the clichés of cabaret performance. As for the performers, they are all talented singers and dancers, but their greatest achievement here is empathy with their characters. Even those who believe in the most outrageous ideas, like alien abductions and wild conspiracy theories, are not portrayed as buffoons; they are just extreme examples of people who don't want to be taken for fools. After all, who among us wants to be somebody's lunch?

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