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Playwrights for the ’90s

Chicago Dramatists Workshop

By Justin Hayford

Four years ago Chicago Dramatists Workshop’s annual showcase “Playwrights for the ’90s” included Dominic Taylor’s But I Get Benefits, a hilarious one-man play that condensed eight hours of office drudgery into eight minutes–without a single spoken word. This year CDW’s “sampling of some of the city’s most exciting and varied voices for the stage” concludes with Kate Hoffower’s The Office, which covers the same territory as Taylor’s play but does so in twice the time using three times the characters and infinitely more words.

The evolution of the efficient, sophisticated But I Get Benefits into the lolling, wasteful The Office typifies a disheartening trend in Chicago playwriting as we charge toward the end of the 20th century. Mainstream Chicago playwrights glut the stage with words, characters, and effects but produce precious little drama. They pen conversations, rarely dialogue. They give their characters platforms but impede their desire to act. Most local playwrights would be much better off writing slice-of-life short stories, where they could wax rhapsodic to their hearts’ content.

The most common tactic, evident in almost all the pieces in “Playwrights for the ’90s,” is to encourage the characters to explain their every impulse–often in excruciating detail–rather than allow those impulses to drive the characters forward. Taylor’s miserable office worker never said a word, but he did spend the entire play trying to keep busy to counteract his own boredom; an occasional sigh was all we needed to feel the depth of his despair. Hoffower’s characters, by contrast, do almost nothing; they slouch in their chairs, stare off into space, and announce again and again that they are “beyond bored.” Hoffower confuses drama with reiteration of the obvious. For Taylor’s protagonist, staving off ennui was a life-and-death struggle; if he sat still for too long, he would literally be sucked into his desk. Hoffower’s characters seem to need nothing but a forum to tell us what we can already see for ourselves.

In short, The Office lacks urgency, as does nearly every play here–and the great majority of new plays mounted locally. All the expert pacing and intelligent staging from artistic director Russ Tutterow and company can’t hide the fact that few of the characters onstage genuinely need to be there, or need anything from anyone else onstage.

Instead, the playwrights try to manufacture stakes through confession; typically, halfway through the play somebody coughs up a tortured personal monologue meant to turn the drama “serious.” In Hoffower’s piece, one of her characters declares that her pointless corporate existence crushes her soul. In David Rush’s In a Large Field of Corn, two complete strangers waiting for an angel confess the horrors they’ve lived through. In Mark Guarino’s Memories Can’t Wait another set of strangers do little but disclose personal secrets to one another. But in these plays the characters’ needs never arise until they’re mentioned. We don’t see their desperation, and we certainly don’t feel it; we only hear about it. Their confessions rarely go beyond literary device. Of course, part of the fault lies with the actors, who have great difficulty creating rich inner lives for these characters. But perhaps they struggle because the playwrights have given them precious little to do besides tell us how they feel.

Taylor’s office chump engaged us because he was trying not to be bored. The drama sprang from his efforts to conceal his boredom from himself and from us; his own state of mind was the source of the conflict. Any great dramatic figure, from Oedipus to Hamlet to Willy Loman, is trying hard not to do something, to avoid something in himself. By contrast, playwrights these days bend over backward to make things easy for their characters, placing no inner constraints on them, and their audiences, revealing everything that more careful students of the theater would keep under wraps. Their characters elaborate on their motives not because they’re driven to, but because the playwright can’t seem to figure out any other way to explain the play to an audience. Stan Nevin, author of A Biological Tick, even interrupts his screwball sitcom treatment of domestic abuse (a truly distasteful endeavor) so that a scientist in a lab coat can explain Freud’s theories of aggression. The intent is broad satire, certainly, but it’s hard to avoid seeing the scientist’s meticulous explication of simple psychological terms as anything but Nevin’s unintentional satire of his fellow playwrights’ work.

Instead of drama, we get endless fiddling to create an effect. In Louise Rozett’s one-man Rocky Sr., the good-old-boy title character begins by telling us from beyond the grave that his wife shot him through the head with his gun. In Keith Huff’s Kultur Tour, an Austrian exchange student gets drunk on his first day with his American family, urinating and vomiting on the kid in the bunk below him. In Tina Fey’s 15 Minutes in the Age of Reason, an unapologetically autocratic Catherine the Great is exhumed to witness a decidedly minor usurpation among self-appointed royalty in a trendy New York disco. These writers’ grotesque exaggerations often create startling, even thought-provoking moments; Fey’s musings about the incompatibility of democracy and artistic greatness, while somewhat derivative, are particularly beguiling. But these bold, eye-catching strokes rarely sharpen the focus or illuminate larger truths. Once you remove the flashy packaging you’re left with little but a crumpled-up pile of flashy packaging.

Of course, one can’t expect Angels in America in a 15-minute play. But even in 30 seconds one expects playwrights “to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature,” in Hamlet’s famous phrase. Throughout the evening one longs for an image, a gesture, an impulse that relates to reality in more than a superficial or tangential way. With the exception of Roger Rueff’s Exchange of Vows, in which two sets of divorced parents prepare for their sons’ weddings, it’s nearly impossible to find a recognizably human moment in any of these works. Ultimately a sterile insularity pervades “Playwrights for the ’90s”: these writers seem to be examining tiny slices of tiny lives, reducing history to fictive biography and social concern to personal quirk.

But then, Americans at the end of the 20th century don’t seem to want much more than this from their theater. In the last few decades we’ve shunned theater that helps us see ourselves better, the kind of work that made Broadway a vital artistic forum in the 1940s and ’50s (Wendy Wasserstein would have been laughed out of the Pulitzer committee’s office back then). Angels in America achieved monumental success not only because of its genius but because the sustained, passionate articulation of social concern has nearly disappeared from the American stage. As television’s flamboyant disposability achieves near ubiquity, theater audiences turn increasingly to commodified distractions, nostalgic regurgitations, and, most depressing, fake-serious dramas in which characters show no more connection to the “issues” they espouse than to the lighting instruments above their heads. The whole point of theater–coming together to recognize (reknow) ourselves–is getting lost.

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