Next Theatre Company


Northlight Theatre

Life is good for Henry “Author” Wiggen, the star pitcher for the New York Mammoths: he’s written a book, his devoted wife is pregnant with their first child, he sells insurance in the off-season, and the money keeps rolling in. Yep, Wiggen has all the right stuff–and what he doesn’t have he can easily bluff, with a ready line of affable blarney.

What suddenly changes this golden boy’s universe is the news that Bruce Pearson, a slow-footed young catcher, is dying of Hodgkin’s disease (now curable but invariably fatal in the mid-50s, when Mark Harris’s novel Bang the Drum Slowly is set). With a new sense of purpose even Wiggen himself doesn’t fully understand, he sets out to make the sad sack Pearson’s last days his best–demanding that Pearson be retained on the roster as a condition of his own contract and foiling the local madam’s plot to marry the naive catcher for his insurance benefits. Though Pearson’s condition is ostensibly a secret, the other players pick up on Wiggen’s attentions to the third-stringer, and under their fraternal care Pearson flowers on the eve of his death into the man he could have been, and his companions into better men as well.

Harris’s book, whose title is taken from the traditional American ballad “The Cowboy’s Lament,” also known as “The Streets of Laredo,” falls into what is called the “tough-tender” school of fiction. Eric Simonson’s adaptation for the stage consciously celebrates masculine camaraderie–a commodity much maligned nowadays–and subtly bypasses the superficial details of the setting to reveal the compassion and sensitivity often lying just beneath the surface of the crudest knuckle dragger. The baseball milieu is incidental. This group could be an army platoon, a construction crew–even a women’s athletic team, for that matter–and the story would be substantially the same.

The Next Theatre production, which Simonson also directed, features as fine a lineup as anyone could want–from Anthony Diaz-Perez as the Mexican third baseman who requires a full-time translator (played with deadpan patience by Michael Ortiz) to Andrew Hawkes as a Zen-practicing power hitter to Tracy Letts as an embittered veteran catcher. The always-competent Jeff Still delivers a fine “old sergeant” turn as Coach “Dutch” Schnell (Jeff Citation material here), and Daryl Schultz lends dignity to Pearson’s sodbuster father, a character who could easily have become droll. The female characters don’t have much to do, but Kymberly Harris as the saintly Mrs. Wiggen and Holly Wantuch as the Machiavellian madam carry out their duties skillfully. The success of this production rests, however, on the performances of Paul Sandberg as the humble Pearson and David New as the heroic Wiggen, who keep their characters big as life but never too big to be believable.

“He was not a bad fellow,” Wiggen says of Pearson. “No worse than most–maybe better than some.” Most of us look for our salvation to someone who will care for us, but Bang the Drum Slowly reminds us that salvation also lies in caring for others.

A recent survey, reported in the Sun-Times, indicates that food has replaced sex as our chief pleasurable indulgence. The characters in Arnold Wesker’s Three Women Talking seem to substantiate the survey: they rhapsodize about their potluck dinner, describing in meticulous detail how they “met” this dish or that wine. Mostly, though, they talk about what men have always suspected they talk about–Mischa Lowenthal bitches about the husband she left, Minerva Thompson about the husband who’s left her, and Claire Hope about her politician paramour, who insists on keeping their relationship under wraps. The women also share girlish confidences–their middle names, their secret fantasies (of course the hyperintellectual Mischa dreams of being a striptease dancer). The evening’s professed agenda is for Minerva and Mischa to counsel and console the younger and less sophisticated Claire, but both patronize her repeatedly. And often their behavior repeats that of their absent men, though the women deplore and ridicule “male” beliefs and tactics.

At one point, for example, Claire launches into a tirade about how her inamorato used to mock her by declaring she wasn’t making any sense–but her complaint is triggered by Minerva’s telling her precisely the same thing. At another point Minerva recounts how disappointed she was on her wedding night, at first sight of her husband’s penis–“Was this what I had waited for?”–after which the women jeer at men for being so size-conscious. When Claire reveals that she’s gone beyond passive kvetching to take action against her caddish lover, however, the other women turn on her in horror, accusing her of betraying him.

Director Russell Vandenbroucke’s decision to have a single actor play all of the male characters–variously represented as crybabies, fussbudgets, and windbags–may have been based on budgetary restrictions, but it also rather snidely reinforces Minerva’s assertion that “men are all alike.” David Downs acquits himself with patience and determination, as do Carmen Roman as Mischa, Mary Ann Thebus as Minerva, and Margo Buchanan as Claire (her recounting of a dirty American jock joke is the best part of the entire evening). All of them are far too good for the drivel Wesker has supplied.

Michael Merritt’s set is cushy, sensual, and luxurious, but all the trappings of wealth, urbanity, and profundity cannot make this misandry into Lawrentian dialogue. The publicity for Three Women Talking calls it a “joyous celebration of the strength and resilience of the female spirit.” Too bad Wesker celebrates that spirit only at the expense of others.