at Chicago Dramatists Workshop



at the Annoyance Theatre

Every era has its prophets and cranks who look at the world–filled with chaos and injustice, stupidity and despair–and proclaim that the time is at hand, surely these must be the last days! The fact that they turn out not to be doesn’t stop the next generation of doomsayers from proclaiming that, this time for sure, the end is near: we shall see Jesus, the Antichrist, the apocalypse, Gotterdammerung, the sun become black as “sackcloth of hair,” the stars fallen onto the earth, “every mountain and island . . . moved out of their places.” Of course, the world remains pretty much as it was, and the prophets (and everyone else) pass into oblivion.

Still, there remains something fascinating about end-of-the-world sagas. Perhaps they appeal to a deep human need to believe that this blatantly unfair world, which never fails to offend our preconceived ideas of perfection, will soon die and be replaced by a better world, where all our friends live well and happily and all our enemies (including everyone who prospers in today’s benighted world) are casually tossed into lakes of fire, swallowed up by the earth, or devoured by beasts with three-digit names.

Richard Dresser’s Better Days describes an end of the world that will be familiar to anyone who remembers the pessimistic predictions of eight to ten years ago: what postindustrial America will look like after all the factories have closed and all the permanently laid-off, ever downwardly mobile members of the no-longer-working class have lost faith in the system. This stagflation-inspired nightmare describes an America just a matchstick, a bomb away from utter social chaos.

Better Days is set in permanently depressed Lowell, Massachusetts, where the local plant closed a long time ago and the only jobs left are in the poorly paying service industry. Ray and Fay, a couple of working stiffs, are trying to get by in a world that no longer makes sense. Still, there are signs of hope, however meager. Ray, for one, is convinced he has prophetic powers: whenever he wears a helmet fitted with a pair of TV antennae, he hears voices telling him to found the True Value Church. For another, a mysterious, vaguely threatening stranger has come to Lowell, bringing with him the hope for a bright economic future in the guise of a career as a free-lance arsonist.

This summary, however, doesn’t begin to do justice to Dresser’s rich, multilayered work. At once a parable about a run-amok consumer culture that ends up consuming itself and a parody of parables, Better Days walks a fine ironic line, simultaneously mocking the world and itself for mocking the world. We never know whether Ray can really see the future, just as we’re never sure whether his vision of better days near the end of the play is a symptom of denial and hopeless optimism or a genuine vision of a brighter future.

At times Dresser’s story is quite funny–as when Phil, a disbarred lawyer turned Amway salesman, discovers the “technique” of selling his product at gunpoint. At other times, however, the bite and poignance of his message overwhelm the comedy, as when the characters try to hide from painful truths: Arnie, a convenience store clerk, refers to his demeaning job as his “career at 7- Eleven.”

Like the novels of Thomas Pynchon and the cult movie Repo Man, Better Days begins by showing us a distorted view of the world, even admitting that it’s a distorted view, and then slowly, slowly does its level best to convince us that this world is closer to the truth than the more conventional and falsely optimistic consensus view.

As WYSIWYG’s debut production (the acronym is for “what you see is what you get”), Better Days makes for an auspicious entrance. Director Bill Endsley’s cast of still-green non-Equity actors makes its way through Dresser’s difficult script with hardly a slip. No one ruins Dresser’s humor by going for easy laughs. No one panics when Dresser’s play turns without warning from absurdly comic to serious and back again. No one grandstands, or steals focus from the show’s weaker actors. Every actor is simply content to do his or her best. Clearly the yearlong “development process” referred to in press materials has paid off.

So long as Dresser’s pessimistic predictions about the economy prove false, WYSIWYG’s future seems bright.

Metraform’s That Darned Antichrist takes a significantly lighter view of the apocalypse than Better Days. But then, what would you expect from the company that brought us such outrageous comedies as Coed Prison Sluts and Splatter Theatre? This production is so lighthearted, in fact, that it almost doesn’t get around to the coming of the Antichrist at all. It spends most of its time parodying family sitcoms and musical-comedy conventions.

Divorced mother Judith Wentworth and her three children–Enid, Bo, and Chip–undergo various adventures on the Wentworth yacht. In true sitcom style, most of them hinge on some minor domestic adjustment, but with one key difference. Director Mick Napier cannot resist making the Wentworth family meaner, more perverse, and more bizarre than your average TV family. He even goes so far as to cast Benjamin Zook, in drag and tricked out with hideous eye makeup, as the family’s domineering matriarch. Enid’s feelings of being unloved turn out to be too true, and her tearful reconciliation with her mother is totally unconvincing.

Likewise, when Chip discovers that he’s the Antichrist, the problem is dealt with as all family problems are dealt with on TV; the issue is the clash between individual autonomy and the emotional ecology of the all-important family. “I’m the Antichrist,” Chip whines. “I’m not fibbin’.” Naturally no one believes him. So the story becomes not how the Antichrist leads the battle against God’s angels for possession of a dying world but how Chip eventually gets his family to acknowledge that he is, indeed, the Beast. Being the Antichrist is treated as just another career choice, like deciding to be a dentist or an actor. “Do you feel it inside you?” Chip’s supportive sister sings at one point, “It’s waiting for you / To take a stand and shout! / You’re the Antichrist!”

It’s amazing how many laughs Napier and his company of gifted actors–among them Ed Furman as Chip, Ellen Stoneking as Enid, Tom Booker as Bo, and Zook as Judith–are able to wring from the simple premise: that every event, no matter how awful or universe shattering, is to be treated as a sitcom crisis, resolved as quickly and as superficially as possible. After the show’s climax–in which three characters are killed in a matter of minutes–the message we’re supposed to take away is the disgustingly sweet “There’s a little bit of the Antichrist in all of us.”

Although That Darned Antichrist lacks the subversive humor and the liberating vulgarity of Coed Prison Sluts, this deconstruction of shallow sitcom family values makes for an amusing, if not terribly thought-provoking, evening.