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Thursday, February 26, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 13.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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For What It's Worth: Blow up
Exploring 1960s mayhem
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The title of Broom Street Theater's current offering, For What It's Worth, is taken from the old Buffalo Springfield song, which has, as its opening stanza: "There's something happening here, What it is ain't exactly clear." Unfortunately, those words turn out to be somewhat prescient of playwright Cassi Harris' attempt to explore the cultural mayhem that was the '60s.

That is not to say that Harris, who also directed, doesn't have some good ideas. Somewhere at the core of this piece (described as a dark comedy) is an interesting play struggling to emerge. She uses the ideological clashes of a turbulent era as her backdrop, but Harris has ultimately written a play about the choices people make in order to survive, and the blame they apportion when they fail to accept responsibility for their actions.

The story tells of a group of armed "revolutionaries" that is thwarted in its attempt to blow up a church by a fervent foursome of evangelical entertainers. (Back in the day, we called them Jesus Freaks.) But the political clashes are subordinate to the personal dramas that play out in a series of revelations that often feel forced, rather than being allowed to grow organically from the action. This is not helped by the frantic delivery of some of the actors, and the apparent belief that anger can only be expressed by shouting.

Nonetheless there are some effective moments. When the lone African American in the group enthusiastically informs everyone that "Negroes are savages," his self-obliviousness is both hilarious and disturbing. And the guilt-ridden pain of a father's cri de coeur about his dead son is heart-wrenching. Mostly, however, the actors only skim the emotional surface of the script.

Harris makes a creditable attempt to portray a time when, as she admits in the program notes, she was too young to participate. Her numerous linguistic anachronisms ("you guys" and "role model" are particularly grating) need to be corrected, not one of the hippies appears remotely authentic, and the intrusive short film should be eliminated. But if Harris continues to develop characters who fully realize that, as the song says, paranoia strikes deep, she will discover what her story is truly worth.

For What It's Worth, Broom Street Theater, through July 27

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