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The Wonder Bread Years

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The good news about Pat Hazell's The Wonder Bread Years, premiering locally at the City Theatre's intimate Lester Hamburg Studio Theater, is that it is not a cloying nostalgia trip into Baby Boomerdom. But don't get your hopes up, youngsters: The show does step heavily into and through the too-much-ballyhooed kiddie kitsch of the 1950s, '60s and '70s, and with nary a wink nor smirk. The theme, writ large in the title, is the world of a child's wonder -- set in the Boomer years because that's when the writer was a kid. And, let's face it, nostalgia-leaning Boomers are a huge readymade audience.

Former Seinfeld writer Hazell insists that Years is not a play. No plot. No real character development. It's a one-man exposition of reminiscences, period film clips and too many (for my taste) commercial jingles and defunct brand names. Actor John Mueller takes Hazell's words, memories and even family slide shows and makes them his own. The sometimes seemingly self-conscious self-deprecating humor adds to Mueller's credibility: The audience readily accepts him as the kid in the stories and the photographs.

Years gets off to a false start, awash in the Boomer propaganda of a carefree childhood filled with nationally advertised name-brand products with which doting parents allegedly filled their tots' lives, and never a 21st-century worry about long-term consequences. This kind of wallowing is standard operating procedure for "entertainment" aimed at Boomers, and the pain from clenching my teeth was just starting when the act turned away from Beaver Cleaverish fiction to an audience-interactive evocation of Hazell-family reality. Kids, it turns out, don't often get what they want, whether sugary cereal or the latest toy. Grown-ups foist many of the same foibles onto children, from Mom's salivary hygiene to Dad's overdrawn sense of humor to the outdated quirks of grandparents.

There's enough in the particulars of Hazell's childhood to be near-universal for his audience. Yes, it was a happy childhood, but not idyllic. The budgetary constraints of family life, not to mention the everyday friction among people living close together, can really seem painful to kids, who feel so much and so intensely. Of course, the adult Hazell/Mueller can now laugh with the audience about it, and banish those long-ago hurts.

What keeps Years from going over the brink into nostalgic pap is the realization that childhood is not a fantasy land of free-spirited entitlement. Instead, it's an often hardscrabble combination of frustrations, annoyances and humiliations. But above that, there is a sense of wonder.

 

The Wonder Bread Years continues through Aug. 17. City Theatre, 1300 Bingham St., South Side. 412.431.2489 or citytheatrecompany.org

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