at the Chicago Dramatists Workshop

Alice & David is a work only an anal-retentive academic could love. Neatly divided into three scenes–set in the recent past, the present, and the near future–and packed tight with allusions to musical, literary, and artistic masterpieces, Alice & David will one day make some graduate student in need of a dissertation topic very happy.

In the meantime, others will suffer through Allan Bates’s lifeless, unentertaining, relentlessly unreal play. Over and over again it aims for the original and profound, but it’s too restrained, too conventional, and too obsessed with bourgeois indicators of status to pass for experimental theater and too oblique, obscure, and self-consciously postmodern to successfully tell a coherent story.

The show’s title suggests a relationship play. But Bates devotes surprisingly little time to developing either Alice or David, much less what makes them worthy of our attention. We are told, for example, that David considers himself an artist but never learn what kind of artist or catch him in the act of creation, nor do we ever find out how he’s able to keep Alice in the style to which she is clearly accustomed. (The second scene takes place in the private dining room of an expensive French restaurant.) We learn even less about Alice, and everything we do learn relates to her feelings about David: she respects his whimsy, enjoys his company, misses him when he’s gone. Despite the strenuous efforts of Laura Pruden and Andy Mallinger, these cardboard-cutout characters seem no more real or human by the end of the play than they do at the beginning.

Anyone who caught Bates’s play about the Yugoslavian civil war, Sing for Me, Naxhie, last summer at the Raven Theatre knows that this veteran Chicago playwright–he’s been writing since 1966–knows the medium backward and forward: he can create living, breathing stage characters with the best of them. Clearly Bates is after something different in Alice & David. But what that something might be is never clear. Sometimes it seems he wants to create a sociopolitical allegory a la Steve Tesich in his recent work (Square One, Speed of Darkness). At other times Bates seems more interested in playing pomo onanistic games with the various theatrical techniques at his disposal than in creating a compelling work of art.

Early in the play Bates introduces a Faustian capitalist, Henry Obermeister, who plans to take over the world with his product: a black box on which is printed in white the words “Henry Obermeister.” Bates scatters hints throughout the play that Obermeister may be transforming the world into a corporate totalitarian state.

Alice & David is pretty thin allegory, however. Though Bates spends considerable time establishing that with each successive scene the world is becoming a darker, more terrifying place, he never explains why this societal devolution is happening. Obermeister may have something to do with it, but Bates gives only oblique indications that this is so. Nor does he reveal enough about Obermeister’s inner life to explain his actions.

It doesn’t help that Bates isolates his characters in a hothouse never-never land only tangentially related to the America we know. (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland offers more pungent political satire.) Though Alice and David have strong opinions about some things–most notably classical music (“Passions on the organ. I’m so pleased. I thought you’d put me off with toccatas and fugues”) and wineglasses (“Did you notice the lovely chime of the crystal?”)–they never say a word that might be construed as having political or philosophical content.

Alice & David is a surprisingly empty work, as arid as the most minimal of minimalist art despite the frantic efforts of Bates et al to give it the illusion of depth, inserting whole scenes from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and turning every scene change into a laborious three- to five-minute ritual, complete with appropriate music and appropriately solemn and focused stagehands. It’s a shame, because directors Richard Gosse and Sam Ramey have found in Mallinger, Pruden, and J. Scott Turner actors who certainly could have made this work live if it had had the potential for life. Turner and Pruden are so delightful, in fact, as the Duchess and Alice in a scene from Alice in Wonderland that I couldn’t help but wish Bates had chosen to adapt Carroll’s wise and witty book instead of creating this ponderous, pretentious, stillborn thing.


Avenue Productions and the On Stage Players

at the Avenue Theatre

Allan Bates could learn a thing or two from Tom Griffin’s considerably less ambitious play, The Boys Next Door, now being performed at the Avenue Theatre. This slice of life about a group of mentally disabled men sharing an apartment and the caseworker who looks after them handles a difficult topic with unusual warmth and sensitivity, never slipping into movie-of-the-week sentimentality. Griffin makes it clear that not all of these men can be fully mainstreamed into society. Yet they’re still human beings, endowed with rights, worthy of fair treatment, and as willing and able to give and receive love as anyone else.

Director Gene Falcetta has assembled what is probably the best cast I’ve seen in an Avenue Theatre production, most of which contain at least one fatally miscast actor. This time, however, even the cast’s weakest links–Stephanie Weinberg and Art Weinberg, both in secondary roles–deliver perfectly acceptable, if somewhat wooden, performances.

The four most important roles–the mentally disabled “boys next door”–have gone to actors who have thrown themselves into their roles heart and soul: Mickey Vincent, Tom Colby, Denis G. Cronin, and Kirk Alan Sanders really know what they’re doing. Not once do they lean on the easy (and offensive) cliches about how to play the mentally handicapped. Watching these four it’s hard not to develop as strong an affection for them as the caseworker who narrates the story has.