Materialism is hazardous to the soul, playwright Beaird says

`TOO bleak.'' ``Not a funny moment in it.'' ``Too depressing.'' These were a few of the dismissive comments David Beaird received after sending his new comedy, ``900 Oneonta,'' to playhouses from New York to Los Angeles.

London theatergoers, however, are laughing uproariously at Mr. Beaird's ``dangerously funny'' (as one critic called it) trenchant treatise on American society. Beaird is now awash with offers, three from the same US theaters that rejected the play. How did these theater gatekeepers get it wrong?

``They just didn't understand the script,'' Beaird said in a Monitor interview. ``I don't think America has a sophisticated enough theater culture to catch the structure underpinning the play; we simply don't have the deep theater culture that London has.''

Below the hilarity, earthy jokes, and high melodrama of the play, a powerful point is being made: Americans have, somewhere along the way, lost their souls. The premium placed on ``things,'' says the playwright, has become so dominant that the kind of spiritual values that can only be taught and nurtured in the home are nearly gone.

``I think what made America tough was the spirit of the immigrants who came over looking for a new world,'' he says. ``It was the people who came out of religious persecution and had deep convictions; they came with the priceless `money' of conviction. And in America today, we are so materialistic that we are losing that conviction.''

Beaird focuses on the fate of a family because he says it illustrates the problem.

``We just don't sit around the kitchen table talking,'' he says, ``or keep our grandmothers in the house anymore; we put them in an old folks' home. We used to read the Bible and talk about morality. Yet I have not in my life been with a family and heard them talk about what is good to do and what is bad to do. And when you don't have a firm base of constantly talked about and shared and examined values and morals, then, as a child, you don't have anything to hold on to.'' (At 15, Beaird was kicked out of his Shreveport, La., high school for bad grades, and embarked on the life of a juvenile deliquent. Now, 25 years later, he's studying to become a psychiatric social worker.)

Beaird would like to think that, with ``900 Oneonta,'' he is pointing the way to a post-modern trend in theater: that of the big, emotional, genuinely entertaining play that tells a clear story. ``While doing that,'' he says, ``hopefully, I'm reaching down, in secret, while audiences are unaware, and grabbing their hearts and holding on very tight, and leaving inside those hearts something they need, to remember why they are alive.''

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