Latino Chicago Theater Company

Somewhere in New Jersey Chucky sits, beer in hand, before a barely functional television, staring at it without really seeing anything. His wife, Lydia, dozes next to him–working double shifts at the factory leaves her little off-duty time for anything but sleep. Tonight, however, she thinks that her spouse should make some conversation with her. Sensing trouble, he declares that she talks too much and leaves for Tommy’s, the neighborhood bar. It turns out Tommy is no more content than his sole customer. Tommy’s business takes up all his time and puts him in a bad temper–so much so that his wife, Veronica, has been sleeping around and thinks she may be pregnant by one of the one-nighters, as she confides to Lydia on their lunch break.

No, things are not happy in the depressed blue-collar universe of Caridad Svich’s Any Place but Here. What makes the plight of these people all the more cruel is that, beneath the bickering and passive-aggressive control games, they seem to actually care for one another. Lydia scolds Chucky for allowing leftover food to go stale in the refrigerator, angrily insisting that he eat it; his response is to tease her, stuffing handfuls of cold pasta into his mouth–whereupon she pleads with him to stop before he makes himself sick. Even as Veronica bleeds from the cut-rate abortion she cannot reveal to Tommy, she decides to remain with her dominating husband.

The second act signals changes, however: Chucky has lost his latest dead-end job, and drink and idleness have made him so bug-brained that even Tommy declares him a liability at the bar. Lydia seems to love him all the more for his infantile dependence, however, chasing away the paranoid demons that beset him, reminding him to take his medication, and comforting him like a well-trained nurse. Veronica and Tommy have fared a little better: Tommy has finally swallowed his macho pride and now wears the glasses he’s needed for a long time (“It was getting where I couldn’t read the labels on the bottles,” he admits. “I’d be making drinks nobody ever heard of”). He has also grown serene, affectionate, considerate, well-groomed, and downright gentlemanly. None of this stops Veronica from leaving him, however. And though Lydia’s garb indicates she has risen in the work force, she doesn’t feel free to be her own person until Chucky dies.

Is Svich’s play a gritty slice-of-life documentary on the American proletariat? An exploration of the proposition that only money buys freedom and happiness? Is it a social history of gender roles, with the second-act Tommy representing the sensitive male? Is it a deconstruction of Ozzie-and-Harriet marital paradigms? Or does it simply show that no matter what men do there’s no pleasing women?

Whatever one’s conclusions–and the mosaic approach Svich adopts from her mentor, Maria Irene Fornes, renders any conclusion questionable–there is no denying the truth of these unfortunate people and their sordid milieu. But even as we acknowledge that truth our recognition is curiously unemotional. At one point we see Veronica touch herself between the legs and bring up her hand all bloody, but we feel no shock, no horror–nothing but the detached interest we might feel in eccentric cell activity viewed through a microscope. Likewise when Chucky urinates on the furniture, when he coughs and spits broken teeth onto the floor, when Lydia drops her jeans and masturbates in public, and even when she refuses to move her husband’s corpse until it begins to stink (“He always smelled bad,” she explains), we feel no outrage, only a bemused wonder at the vagaries of human behavior and, perhaps, a profound relief that we are not these people.

Steve Pickering’s direction keeps the characters at a distance, discouraging any identification with them–a choice that allows us to view the characters with amusement, sympathetic or derisive, as well as scorn or pity. The cast–Michelle Banks as Lydia, Maurice Chasse as Chucky, Lauren Campadelli as Veronica, and Reginald Hayes as Tommy–deliberately play that ambivalence, teetering between soap and sitcom, brutality and slapstick, playing the likelihood of a happy ending against the likelihood of a tragic one with multiple deaths. Angelica Gutierrez’s set, with its overflowing garbage cans and shabby-genteel squalor, could have been lifted from anywhere within a short radius of the theater, reminding us that however we may try to cast Svich’s characters as “them,” their world is never far from ours. This realization may make us uncomfortable, but it does hold our attention through a drama as vivid and disorderly as life itself.