BDI 361 Theater Company

at ARC Gallery

If in Elmer Rice’s Street Scene, A.R. Gurney’s The Dining Room, and Alan Ayckbourn’s kitchens in Absurd Person Singular, the setting is the story, what does that say about Willy Russell’s Stags & Hens, which is set mainly in the men’s and women’s lavatories of a Liverpool pub? That the play lets it all hang out, cuts through the crap, provides welcome relief?

Well, all of the above. This refreshingly off-center 1978 play from the author of Educating Rita has the same goofy charm, warmth, honesty, and immediacy as that 1980 breath of fresh air. Remarkably like Jim Cartwright’s Road, Stags deals with more than just life in a loo. It focuses on a dozen young Brits, more in love with ale and disco than each other, and afraid to commit to anyone beyond tomorrow. (What one girl says about Liverpool could as easily describe Cartwright’s Lancashire: “Life’s draining away from the place and no one’s doing anything about it.”)

In this American premiere by the BDI 361 Theater Company, twelve young Chicagoans with impeccable Merseyside accents are giving Stags & Hens a terrific new life. Their staging brims over with the same frenzied frustrations and rambunctious energy as Remains’ well-wrought Road. If you liked Rita or Road, Stags & Hens offers more of the same solid delight.

Over the course of a busy evening, several local “stags” alternate with five “hens” to fill us in on what’s happening in the singles bar outside. It’s stag party time, the night before Dave (Kevin Granfield) is to marry Linda (Kathleen O’Grady). To celebrate their last night of freedom, he’s erping his guts out in the men’s room and she’s locked herself in a stall in the ladies’.

As independent-minded as Russell’s Rita, Linda is not exactly delirious about the next day’s ceremony: she is the one who feels trapped (an interesting reversal). It seems Linda agreed to marry Dave because she loved the song that was playing when he asked her; a moment later she realized she’d set things in motion she doesn’t want to be a part of. Now she fears she’ll have to marry Liverpool as well as Dave, and never escape. Her girlfriends console her by saying things like: “Love is blind and marriage is an institution–so who wants to live in an institution, blind?” When Linda finally flings open the stall door, it’s to vow she’ll have that one last fling (a reversal of Alfred Doolittle’s “Get Me to the Church on Time”).

Giggling and gossiping, the randy girls dedicate themselves to getting “legless,” or drunk, with the right guy (this is all definitely pre-AIDS); that means pushing off the wrong ones, like the geeky “spotted midget” who’s trying to paw them all. (To scare him off, one pretends to be a lesbian; that doesn’t help–he says he loves a good challenge.) On top of looking for Mr. Overnight, the hens are equally determined to keep the bride and groom from seeing each other before the wedding–or they will both be cursed.

Besides trying to keep Dave’s head out of the toilet bowl, the boys are busy “chatting up the tarts” (their word for all girls), “getting pissed,” bragging about coming conquests, or regretting the latest close encounter. Their leader–only because he’s the loudest–is football-playing, Liverpool-loving Eddy (James Krag). Good at rationalizing mediocrity, Eddy insists they’re all as good as anyone else (his democracy of the downtrodden). Sadly, this leader is a loser who hates the music that gets them through the night, despises marriage (and by implication women), and most of all loathes Peter (John Gaynor), the successful rock guitarist now returned to his hometown to play a gig at the pub.

Peter, it seems, once had a big fling with Linda. Inevitably they meet again, and the stags and hens (each faction acting independently) set to work to make sure lightning doesn’t strike twice, as the action tumbles out of the WC and onto the dance floor. It looks like a stereotypical setup for the usual shopworn histrionics–but Russell ends the play with a stunning about-face that’s just as right as it is surprising.

Director Richard Barletta’s similar refusal to go for the old marks the surefire staging, a staging so natural–from Barletta’s unforced blocking to the Beatles accents–you feel you’re eavesdropping from the unused stall. Never condescending to or merely suggesting their roles, the BDI actors are on top of, inside, and underneath their characters from their first burst into the john to the last, decisive dance.

Among the hens, O’Grady’s lovely Linda is a wonder of resilience, spunk, and fearsome common sense. She’s set off brilliantly by the screwball “girls just want to have fun” Frances (George Johnston); flirtatious Carol (Daryl Heller); the spinster-until-the-first-drink Maureen (Francesca Rollins); and the married but untamed Bernadette (Diane Zimmer).

The stags are handsome, affable Kav (John Ryan); the elaborately horny, “brains between his legs” Robbie (David Van Matre); Billy (Marc Grapey)–who, though only out for a good time, regrets that he’ll end up living with his mother and no wife; and Granfield’s Dave (a selfless actor–he has no lines and has to spend most of the play slumped in the bathroom stall). With a chip on his shoulder that fills the stage, Krag excels as envious Eddy; as the object of his anger, Gaynor holds his own as the local boy made rock star (a remarkably unpretentious star at that). All are very much at home with the rich Liverpool slang.

Among so many merits, the best thing about Stags & Hens is how much we discover on our own from 12 Liverpudlians who behave like people never do in plays and talk like people who don’t expect to be overheard. It’s the kind of authenticity, with nothing calculated or contrived, that made Steppenwolf stand out from the rest (in Say Goodnight, Gracie and, of course, their recent flawless Educating Rita). I feel the same magic in this very promising BDI 361 Theater Company.