The Army has spotted a flying saucer. It’s 1958, and a cast of fumbling characters interrupt their self-involved lives to fend off the threat. Thus begins Gore Vidal’s Visit to a Small Planet, a 1950s comedy that pokes fun at Cold War hysteria and exorcizes fears of impotent authority.
Given the recent UFO scare in Stephenville, Texas, Small Planet is a smart choice for the Harlequin Dinner Theatre,
located within Fort Sam Houston, whose audience is largely (I’m guessing) military affiliates. Staging the play on home turf argues that the service crowd can appreciate being the brunt of parody (see Vidal’s bio for political and military leanings). It also gives the institution the last laugh while exploring an alternative reaction to extraterrestrial encounters — freaking out with the rest of us instead of denying, denying, denying.
General Powers (Lynn Morren) is an emotional wreck of an authority figure who possesses titular power and little else. So when this stellar assignment threatens his shot at a promotion, he turns to friend Roger Spelding, a television reporter sworn to secrecy (oh, the ’50s). The news is low priority for Roger (Brett Thacker). He’s preoccupied with trying to keep his teenage daughter un-pregnant — until the saucer lands in his backyard.
But star man Kreton (not cretin) isn’t the monster they expected. He’s a cordial, worldly, British-sounding fellow whose mental and space-time faculties we’ll never understand.
Kreton announces he’s come to observe his favorite hobby, human civilization. Donald Bayne deftly plays the Visitor with fanciful and brilliant timing, and director Dan Patterson transitions the character convincingly from interested stranger (humans love to be loved) to self-appointed dictator inciting war for the sake of pastime.
Things are looking bleak for these small-towners. Is this another world war? Is Kreton working for the Russians? I can’t say the gravity of these questions was very piercing or that historical reflections were as staggering as they could’ve been (written in the ’50s about the ’50s, Small Planet takes a lode of interpretative license). But the show is a successful jaunt through post-war America and its quaint phobias. Deborah Basham-Burns’ comic relief as Reba Spelding is consistently refreshing, as when she fears not for her life but for her roses when the saucer lands. I can’t help but credit the live cat whose bit part entails being held, walked around, and kept steady on stage for minutes (or decades in cat years). I was assured by her owner that the feline was not drugged.
The Harlequin Dinner Theatre is a time capsule of oldies ambience and hearty home-cookin’. Watching Visit to a Small Planet on an Army base may be the ripest viewing experience you’ll come across, so catch it here while you can. But first, swear to me on Eisenhower’s grave that you’ll call ahead for directions. If you’re a first-time visitor to Fort Sam Houston, finding an open entrance is like breaking into jail, and you don’t want to miss dinner — or it’s latrine duty for you. •
Visit to a Small Planet
6:15 cocktails/salad bar
8pm show Wed-Sat
Through March 29
Harlequin Dinner Theatre
Fort Sam Houston
Bldg. 2652, Harney Rd.