Altered States of America

Pavement Productions at Theater! Theatre!, 3430 SE Belmont, Thurs-Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm, through December 20, $15

M ost people have at least one good drug story to tell, and indeed some people have too many. Little does a good drug story actually have anything to do with the drugs themselves; they are almost certainly dependent on the talent of the storyteller. In Altered States of America, playwright Steve Patterson guides a Magic Bus tour through the different ages of drug culture in the United States, from the opium dens of the 19th Century to the coke-tooting Hotel California of the '70s. In what amounts to a sort of People's Chemical History of the United States, Patterson, along with director Lisa L. Abbott, reflects on America's experiments in altered consciousness amid the still smoldering ruins of the War on Drugs.

For the greater part of the play, Altered States' cast maintains a shining brilliance, although at times it's more of a plastic glow, like the blacklight posters left in your grandparents' basement by your uncle. New York transplant Jason O'Leary is fresh-faced and comically honest as the half-baked Everyman, equal parts Shaggy and Alfred E. Newman. Sabra May-yee Choi maintains the frenetic grace of sexy, soul-vacant housewives of the '60s, with a head full of the American Dream and a pharmacy bottle full of Mother's Little Helper. James Matthew Engberg has a time bomb comic clock, and easily steals the play with his Dr. David Bowman Cop, a nitrous oxide addicted dentist who performs Aristotelian debates with a pair of sock puppets. This scene alone makes Altered States worthwhile, combining Beckett with Burt and Ernie.

Altered States takes a thoughtful look at America's relationship with mind-altering drugs, which too-often resembles codependency, a swinging back-and-forth between overindulgence and guilt. And though narrator Torrey Cornwell ironically acknowledges the crotchety, paternalistic view from which the story is told, the play too-often smacks of deadhead head trips. The use of a Jefferson Airplane song (you know the one) to cue a scene made me want to stuff my ears with Zoloft. What Altered States could probably use most is a nice long intermission, with time to use the bathroom, have a cigarette, and feed your head. TOUSSAINT PERRAULT