Writer’s Theatre-Chicago

at Books on Vernon

Produced by the Writer’s Theatre-Chicago, in (aptly enough) the back room of a bookstore, A Play on Words offers mostly words and very little play. Part of this is deliberate: the group’s mission statement stresses a minimalist approach, “to prevent interference with the text and the passion.” To this end sets, costumes, and lights are stripped down to the barest essentials, and the staging (in this production, at least) is not developed past the level of a staged reading of a play in progress. All this is very well if it serves passion, but Michael Halberstam’s adaptation of a group of seemingly unrelated literary dollops by humorists from Oscar Wilde to Dorothy Parker is remarkably bloodless.

The first act consists mainly of actual wordplay: quips from famous wits, a series of puns (uncredited), a long tongue twister, and a collection of “student bloopers” gleaned from actual history papers. Then out come the teacups and the Oscar Wilde quotations, on everything from God to gossip, with obligatory English accents and lifted eyebrows. The cast (James Asch, Gabriel Coleman, Deborah Harris, and Karen F. Woditsch) seem a capable and often charming crew but have nowhere to go with all these clever words, so they fall back on the sort of posturing and forced cheer that often accompanies (and ruins) this sort of “literary theater.” Halberstam’s staging is perfunctory at best, and his attempts to segue from section to section of the first act with short bits of slapstick (pratfalls, dropped trousers, rubber chickens) are as out of place and puzzling as a whoopee cushion at the Algonquin.

Lack of communication is the loose theme of the second act, a series of short stories and essays. The actors (looking in their second-rate tuxedos as though they’d just come from a catering gig) get the chance to connect with one another here, and in engaging one another have more of a chance at engaging the audience as well. But they still don’t quite manage to make their material live.

Todd McEwan’s “They Tell Me You Are Big” (wherein Chicago is described as “Big People Land” by a bewildered out-of-towner) is performed as a monologue, but the other four stories all involve two people who are desperately trying to communicate or desperately trying to avoid it. Although these stories mercifully give the actors more to do, the humor here is the comfortable, forgiving sort. Even “On Conversation” has very little of Ring Lardner’s usual bite; two men on a train make pointless, repetitive chatter in the name of friendly conversation. Dorothy Parker’s “You Were Perfectly Fine” drags a reluctant fellow through the consequences of his drunken spree the night before, but Parker’s edge and her protagonist’s rising sense of panic are hampered rather than helped by the staging. Stephen Leacock’s “Self-Made Men” is a toss-off about two men trying to outdo each other with stories of childhood poverty.

Only “The Wrysons,” John Cheever’s examination of a family’s empty suburban existence, manages to transcend the treatment it gets, evoking both extraordinary images and strong emotion. It is haunting, funny, and acidic all at once. Its humor lies in self-recognition; you squirm a little even while you laugh.

In his director’s notes Halberstam assures us that this story does belong in his evening of literary comedy, even if it is (shudder) “dark,” and he promises to send us home smiling. Thus Cheever’s vision is followed by a cheap sight gag, and we can leave reassured, self-examination tossed aside for an easier sort of humor. As a lover of theater and literature both, it makes me decidedly cranky when the two are pitted against each other and neither comes out on top.