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'Last Smoker' review: Smoke, no mirrors

A scene from the Off-Broadway musical

A scene from the Off-Broadway musical "The Last Smoker in America." Credit: Joan Marcus

From a distance, "The Last Smoker in America" promised to be a sardonic little romp, something perhaps with the dry audacity of Christopher Buckley's "Thank You for Smoking" but with songs.

After all, the book and lyrics are by Bill Russell, who did the same for "Side Show," the short-lived Broadway musical about conjoined twins that some believe to be an unsung treasure. Even those of us who had misgivings about that one may be forgiven for expecting more than a lame futuristic junk-food fantasy about "tomorrow" in a suburban American kitchen.

Four talented actors mug and shriek through this belabored would-be satire about a time when smokers are jailed and their spouses fired for carrying the smell of tobacco on their clothes. Ernie (John Bolton) has lost his teaching job and, in the opening scene, admits at a Nic-A meeting that wife Pam (Farah Alvin) just won't quit.

Cut to their cheerful kitchen with the new technology, called Asphyxia, in the wall. This device offers periodic updates on the penalties for smoking. The neighbor (Natalie Venetia Belcon) is the head of the neighborhood watch and a Jesus freak with mood swings who sings, naturally in faux-gospel style, "Let the Lord Be Your Addiction." Pam's teenage son (Jake Boyd) is hyperactive and, for no apparent reason, decides he is a black rapper and sings a faux-hip hop "Gangsta."

The show is only 90 minutes, but is loaded with stereotypes and padded with tangential scenes and songs that could well be plugged into many other musicals. Peter Melnick's music varies faux-rocker with faux -- you get the point, and Russell's lyrics shoehorn irrelevant words so he can rhyme them. ("I feel so alone like a rapper in Fargo," sings the son. "like I am unwanted cargo.")

Andy Sandberg's direction is as broad as the material, though AC Ciulla's choreography does support some amusing production numbers. Pam momentarily runs off to start a revolt in pursuit of happiness, but, for reasons I cannot imagine, returns.


WHAT "The Last Smoker in America"

WHERE Westside Theatre, 407 W. 43rd St.

INFO $85; 212-239-6200; lastsmoker.com

BOTTOM LINE Don't inhale.

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