“Totem and Taboo” at Central Works

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“The Age of the Father is over”

On October 1, 1955, The Honeymooners debuted on national television with an episode titled “TV or not TV”. The story introduced a working-class couple in New York City: Ralph Kramden, a bus driver, and his wife, Alice, who struggles at home to keep their small bleakly furnished apartment livable. Alice, as the episode reveals, wants a TV, something to enliven her impoverished life, imprisoned as she is between four drab walls. What this all-male written and produced sitcom couldn’t address in the episode was how powerful television was, not only in its ability to reflect but also to shape the watching audience’s mores.

The innovative Berkeley-based Central Works opened its 2016 season last week with the world premiere of Totem and Taboo, a satiric play by David Weisberg that uses The Honeymooners to examine our current state of human relations, especially those of the family.

The Kramdens, and their sidekicks, The Nortons, are transported through the magic of the playwright’s imagination to the 21st century, a mere 60 years after Jacke Gleason faced Audrey Meadows to threaten, “To the moon, Alice, to the moon.”  

In Weisberg’s transformation, Ralph (Bob Greene) is a struggling writer, former academic and political theorist, who lives as a house husband to the successful, well-organized, even-tempered and professional biologist Alice (Deb Fink). Their son Toby (Caleb Cabrera), perhaps Weisberg’s most inspired transformation, inhabits the relationship to Ralph that Norton filled in the original: he’s Ralph’s underachieving, intellectually challenged buddy who is both a burden and a support for the companionship he offers. Trixie (April Green) is the newly moved-in next-door neighbor, who being a randy divorcée has her eye on both Alice and her well-muscled son.

Ralph has completed his magnum opus, Opting Out of the Social Contract, a monster book congested with social theory and improbable political conclusions. He has just received the letter rejecting his manuscript and, in true Ralph Kramden–style and with unbounded vanity, he leaves the publisher/editor a long insulting voicemail. To quote Gleason’s Ralph, he’s “got a BIIIIG mouth,” but the loudness of his mouth has been usurped by the academic theory of the ’80s. Gone is the constant implied and mimed physical violence and slapstick, it has been absorbed into a nouvelle verbal and intellectual violence. Ralph’s narcissism is “of a higher order”.

In the meantime Alice has been canoodling with Trixie, and son Toby wants his college funds so he can start a business as a physical trainer. Act One closes with Ralph drowning his sorrows in pain pills when he enflames his back in a fit of pique.

When Act Two opens we are back in world of the original The Honeymooners. Fed up with the antics of her husband, a bewigged Alice leaves for her mother’s. And Norton brings Ralph a stuffed raccoon; Ralph has been given the singular honor of being named the Keeper of Sacred Mascot of the Raccoon Lodge. In an attempt to solve the mystery of why Alice has left Ralph (perhaps you, the viewer, can more easily answer that) Norton goes to the library to research the works of Freud. What he brings back to Ralph is Totem and Taboo, the only book by the psychoanalyst left on the shelves.

Act Three, titled in the program “The Trial of Eros v. Thanatos” puts us back into the world of the present-day, where “the primal father has to be sacrificed once and for all.”

Central Works developed this play in workshops, and like many plays developed this way, Totem and Taboo is complex, with scenes that shift from backstory to front story, from reality to fantasy, from past to some putative present. Weisberg’s script is very funny and fast moving. There’s a lot there, and it leaves the viewer much to mull over, posing multiple questions and offering no feel-good solutions. Director Graham Smith keeps this all on track, zipping along, hilarious and sly. All the actors do splendidly, keeping the energy high and wry.

– Jaime Robles


Totem and Taboo continues at Central Works until March 20, at the Berkeley City Club. For information and tickets, call 510-558-1381 or visit

Photo: Trixie Norton (April Green) and Alice Kramden (Deb Fink) exchange shopping tips in Central Works’ production, Totem & Taboo. Photo by J. Norrena.