Econo-Art Theatre

Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps. –William Blake

David Payne’s new domestic tragedy, An Excess of Joy, is just plain excess–it has an overheated, improbable plot, lame dialogue, and tired symbols. And the usually reliable Econo-Art Theatre Company supplies it with a little histrionic overkill for good measure. It’s as if they’d decided they needed their own special fiasco, a homegrown Springtime for Hitler. But, unlike the surprise-hit stinker in The Producers, this turkey will never bust a box office.

The plot alone, which covers three days in the lives of a depression-era Chicago family, is incriminating enough. Phillip Loy (Marc Silvia) is a former vaudevillian, now an unctuous Chicago minister. Convinced that the kingdom of God is at hand and that his life lacks risk and excitement, Phillip decides to move his family into a run-down Gold Coast mansion, which he intends to convert into a fashionable theater.

Phillip’s faithful but neglected wife, Ethelda (Lee Guthrie), applauds her husband’s “charitable” obsession but prefers to dwell on the one magic moment of her family’s life, the day Lindbergh landed at Le Bourget airport. Indeed this incident seems to have great meaning for all members of the Loy family. It’s made daughter Annabel (Lynn Baber) desperate to fly: she collects dead birds to learn their secrets and regularly jumps from heights in the hope that she’ll soar. (Annabel believes that an “excess of joy”–that is, love of the world–keeps her rooted to the earth. But if she ever loses that excess . . .) The last Loy is Annabel’s simpleminded 17-year-old brother, Isaac (Jeff Hughes), who always manages to overhear exactly what he shouldn’t.

It seems Phillip has plenty to hide. His relationship with Ethelda’s best friend, Priscilla Pathway (Ileen Getz), is only part of it. When she arrives to give Ethelda boxing lessons, she knocks Ethelda out, and with the unconscious wife sprawled on the floor Phillip and Priscilla–his mistress, of course–exchange adulterous sweet nothings.

Finally the last and most ridiculous character of all blusters in. It’s larger-than-life Elizabeth Dean (Robin Baber), who is more than a ghost from Phillip’s Parisian past. A transsexual, she’s all that remains of “Angel Face,” the boy lover Phillip adored six years before. Elizabeth has returned to take a hand in Phillip’s new theater–to make it the home of an even bigger seal act than the one they used to share in Paris. Once a “miserable little queer,” Elizabeth is now a devious devil who will do anything to attain her dream–including stabbing Priscilla, burning up her corpse in a furnace (a la Native Son), and threatening to expose Phillip’s checkered past.

From this point until its crazed ending, An Excess of Joy seems a brain-damaged rip-off of Fatal Attraction: Elizabeth terrorizes the Loys while Ethelda does a slow burn and Phillip proves unable to evict the wicked stranger. Until Elizabeth’s inevitable extinction, this transsexual from hell does everything but suck blood, puke green bile, and throw her head across the room. What–she forgot to pour acid on his car?

Even setting aside the playwright’s ignorant belief that there were sex changes before the 50s, An Excess of Joy is still implausible, from its suspiciously buoyant start to its trashy ending. Despite Payne’s efforts, Phillip comes off as so relentlessly ordinary that the skeletons in his closet can’t possibly matter. This is no arrogant, swaggering hypocrite who creates his own comeuppance; he’s just a petty, self-important Chicago showman who wants to have it all–happy family, willing mistress, and secret homosexual past. The schmuck lacks even the slightest hint of a tragic flaw. Pretending he’s got one is as dumb as trying to turn Jimmy Swaggart into a Wagnerian hero.

In a fatal miscalculation, director Paul Myers takes Payne’s preposterous play deadly seriously. Refusing to treat it as a camp romp–which is the only way to save it–Myers plays even the silliness straight and dull. So, though it proves no point, Silvia’s Phillip remains maddeningly unflappable despite the crackbrained disasters that swirl around him. Getz ogles and vamps her way through the role of Priscilla as if the character were a real predator; and if Guthrie is trying to give Ethelda a battered dignity, all that comes across are the injuries. Hughes’s Isaac is a study in stultifying, artificial innocence, and for all the adenoidal intensity Lynn Baber confers on Annabel, the part still comes off as lousy Tennessee Williams.

Last is the hoarse and zealous Robin Baber, in the most horrific role an actress was ever forced to infest, resembling a cross between Marilyn Horne and Divine. Dumb her acting may be, but then nothing could give life to a stage villainess so crude as the twisted Elizabeth.

No question, Payne and Econo-Art will survive this squalid, blunderingly offensive An Excess of Joy. Someday they may laugh about it, their very own theatrical skeleton in the closet. But if they’re smart they’ll just forget it. I should be so lucky.