Halsted Theatre Centre

I know I’m expected to take the long view on Brad Fraser’s Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love: to look past the shocking bits to the sober message about How We Live Today. But the fact is, the shocking bits are what I like best about the thing. Make me look past them and all I’ll be able to tell you is that Fraser’s written a maudlin little fable, full of stick-figure characters and pop-song moral equations. His bouts of titillation at least give those stick figures some body.

Quite a lot of body, actually. Human Remains is all about bodies, one way or another. Fraser and his director, Derek Goldby, have installed a big bed center stage at the Halsted Theatre Centre and plopped a succession of attractively naked people down on it, giving them no end of sexy–if only simulated–activities to perform with each other. There’s lesbian this, gay that, heterosexual other things, along with a nasty little taste of dramatically significant bondage. When nobody’s making active use of the mattress, a psychically gifted whore named Benita lolls on it, recounting classic urban folklore in the form of mad killer horror stories–like the one about the baby-sitter who gets threatening phone calls that turn out to be coming from another part of the very house at which she’s sitting.

This Playboy-meets-Freddy Krueger aspect of Human Remains is pretty amusing, all in all. I like looking at naked people and I like hearing a good, goose-pimply campfire tale. Fraser and Goldby are more than generous with both. And that being so, I probably shouldn’t mind their attempt to give the experience a socially significant gloss. In fact, I should welcome it: As every rape case and gay bashing proves, there’s a wide and dangerous ground on which sex and violence collide in ways that promise something a good deal worse than just a creepy shiver. A play that could bring me up short, effectively projecting the true horror in the fun–that would be a play worth seeing.

But the effort here is so lame, so contrived, so pretentious, so self-consciously aware of its intentions that you lose both the fun and the horror, and you’re left with nothing more than an unusually savvy vignette on sexual hygiene. Well, that and some images of really good-looking naked folks.

Meet David. Thirty-something and single, this handsome Canadian used to be a television actor and perhaps even a nice guy; something–we don’t know what–happened, though, and now he’s a gay waiter with a chip on his shoulder and a propensity for pursuing impersonal fucks like it was still the 70s. David maintains a platonic but sweetly bitchy live-in relationship with his former girlfriend, Candy, who apparently used to be fun, until something–we don’t know what–happened and she started pursuing impersonal fucks as if they represented true love. Candy’s got herself involved with a shrill, emotionally needy lesbian named Jerri and a dumb, misogynistic hunk named Robert. Then there’s Bernie, David’s lifelong friend who’s doing something–we know what, though we’re not supposed to till David figures it out–that requires frequent changes of bloody clothes. Meanwhile, there’s a serial killer on the loose.

These people talk and couple, couple and talk until they arrive at Fraser’s moral, which is that sex without love, serial murder, answering machines, and acid rain are all basically the same thing: symptoms of an emotionally bankrupt society that’s lost its ability to care.

Or in other words: no, it isn’t very pretty what a town without pity can do, so put a little love in your heart.

Fraser’s script is so thin and slick and full of arty technique that you get the feeling it wants to be a movie. It would probably succeed as one, too, in the sex-is-scary mode of Fatal Attraction. Onstage, however, it suggests the same emptiness it thinks it’s attacking.

That it engages us at all is a testament to the professional prowess of the ensemble–led by Scott Renderer, who renders David with deadpan, poker-player smarts. Lenore Zann makes Candy endearing despite the fact that the role seems to be a sexist construct, designed mainly to ensure the presence of breasts onstage and to water down what otherwise might have looked like a critique of gay sexual morality. Michael Connor is effective as the resident naif, Kane; as is Olivia Negron as the resident sleaze, Benita. Robert McCaskill breathes a lot of menace into bloody Robert, but can’t give meaning to that menace. I don’t think anybody could.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Casey & David Konczal.