Friday, December 16, 2022

House of Trash - A Plays and Playwrights Memory

I think Trav S.D. and I met sometime in late 1999--maybe he can weigh in on this and provide his recollection; mine is that he wanted to write something for and so we met up. Whatever the reason, we started up an association that has lasted these twenty-plus years and blossomed into a friendship for which I am most grateful.

I know that House of Trash was the very first Trav S.D. show I ever saw. I saw its first incarnation at HERE in January 2000, and I thought it was pretty hysterically funny. Trav brought it back that summer, at the New York International Fringe Festival, where it played at Surf Reality, and I thought it was pretty hysterically funny (see below). I was already pretty sure I wanted to put in Plays and Playwrights 2001 before FringeNYC; that production clinched it. And then there was a revival only two years later, presented by DM Theatrics (I don't remember where). Still pretty hysterically funny. review - August 19, 2000

What's the funniest moment in House of Trash? Perhaps it's when Claude the gorilla sits down, crosses his legs, and starts to leaf through a high school student's composition book. Or is it when Angel, a wigged-out druggie who claims to have been abducted by aliens, lets slip that her mother is part of the Manson family? Or when Bob Maggot, an earnest garbageman moonlighting as a Baptist preacher, instructs his step-grandson Pubert to polish a telephone with the remnants of a frog sandwich?

It doesn't really matter: what you need to know is that in House of Trash, the "populist musical" written and directed by downtown comedy favorite Trav S.D., the laughs are nonstop and mostly of the belly variety. This is a burlesque, pure and simple, in the grand comic tradition of Plautus, Goldoni, and Weber & Fields: a rowdy, raucous, profane cartoon of a show--with the blessed ring of truth simmering just beneath the surface.

The story revolves around Preacher Bob's attempts to keep his extended family on the straight and narrow. His wife is a miserable old harridan addicted to tabloid TV who spouts weird malevolent folk wisdom like a deranged cross between Granny Clampett and the Wicked Witch of the West. His son is a walking timebomb of adolescent angst, in love with his high school teacher. His step-son is an imbecilic Hayseed (that's his name) who may be in love with a goat. And his step-grandson is a glue-sniffing dimwit, involved with the aforementioned Angel: a walking lost cause.

Poor Preacher Bob; lucky us. There's a lively country/rock score, as well (performed by Beau Mansfield and his band); plus grandly outrageous performances by Robert Pinnock, Reverend Jen Miller, Gilda Konrad, Loren Kidd, Hank Flynn, Jon Weichsel, and Trav S.D. himself. All are employed in the dubious but worthy cause of poking fun at white trash, who are--let's face it-- the only acceptable figures of derision left in this politically correct world of ours. And they do so with over-the-top vigor in this delicious celebration of good old-fashioned American ignorance. review - July 14, 2002

Midway through the first act of the revival of House of Trash, during a song whose chorus literally goes "I like to drive my truck/Hucketa, hucketa, hucketa huck," a pair of biker babes appear from nowhere, like pages of Hard Times magazine come to life, to sing backup. When this rouser of a number ends, just as the audience is about to burst into applause, the doorbell rings ("I Like to Drive My Truck" is sung in a living room).

Such is the sublime madness that director Frank Cwiklik brings to Trav S.D.'s populist musical farce. I can't say that everything Cwiklik has done with this audacious, giddy show entirely succeeds, but it is undeniably provocative and always interesting.

House of Trash concerns Bob Maggot, a garbage man who moonlights as a Baptist preacher, and his clan. They include a wife who believes in "haints" and watches wrestling and reality TV all day; a step-son who is in love with a goat (Trav S.D. anticipating Edward Albee by a couple of years, here); a son whose psychological profile pretty much screams serial killer (to whom, naturally enough, Preacher Bob gives a rifle as a cure for masturbation); and a step-grandson who is usually high on glue and cavorting with a weird girl who says her mother was with the Manson Family. House of Trash, which its author says is based in part on a play by the Roman poet Terence, grafts classical farce onto America's great unwashed, for fun and, one hopes, intellectual profit.

Cwiklik stages the first act like a Brechtian anti-musical, with characters coming downstage to talk or sing to us about their place in society's pecking order (often accompanied by a church choir robed in green plastic garbage bags). All the while, the far-fetched plot, which intentionally seems to be torn from the pages of the Weekly World News, unfolds. Cwiklik's take on the second act is more severe, proving that the line between broadest comedy and scariest tragedy is about one atom wide: it plays darker than I would have expected, an aching sociopolitical protest that feels heavier than perhaps the script can bear.

Music is provided by The Maggot Family Ramblers (Brian Bair alternating with Jamie Boyaca on drums, plus Greg Solomon on bass, and Pete Hennan and Bernie Li on guitar) who perform Adam Swiderski's buoyant arrangements of the eight songs beautifully: there are four more live musicians here than at the Broadway musical Contact. The cast, which includes frequent Cwiklik collaborators like Michele Schlossberg, Moira Stone, and Josh Mertz, is as energetic and fearless as the show requires.


The last sentences of my first review are wrongheaded, both in terms of popular culture and Trav S.D.'s intention. By the time of the second review, I had lived with the play for the whole gestation period of the book and understood it better. This is one of the few plays we've published that I've had the opportunity to see staged by a company other than the original one, which is instructive and also testimony to the work's strength.

Trav S.D. went on to become one of the most significant contributors to's success, serving as an occasional reviewer and then, from 2006 on, as the host of our podcast series (nytheatrecast) for eight years. He also helped us with fundraising and many many events of different kinds. He wrote the Foreword for Plays and Playwrights 2006, in which he said many nice things about NYTE and about me, including this little nugget that treasure:

For someone who has changed the life of so many people, Martin Denton is astoundingly down to earth....Like the LAPD, Martin's mission is "To Protect and Serve," with an emphasis in this case on the latter.

He's had a prodigious career in indie theater as well, as a playwright, director, producer, and actor. He's the man who can most reliably make me laugh in a theater: if he's on stage and I'm in the audience then I am probably laughing, sometimes uncontrollably.

One final anecdote: when I rejoined Facebook this year, after many years away, Trav was the first person I "friended." Cautious, he messaged me: tell me something that only you would know so that I'll know it's you. And I wrote: "I once published a play of yours that had a frog sandwich in it."

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