As Bees in Honey Drown

Northlight Theatre

at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie

Advice From a Caterpillar

Grassroots Theatre Company

at Chicago Actors Studio

By Justin Hayford

I was talking recently with a semifamous television and film actor when he began to expound upon the Chicago theater scene. “I flipped through the Reader listings,” he said, “and I think I counted 120 productions. But how many are any good? Forty?” My jaw clenched involuntarily as I prepared to defend my home turf. “Now let’s look at New York,” he continued. “How many there are good? Two?”

If you’re not convinced by the pronouncements of a semifamous television and film actor, take a look at the hot New York properties regularly showing up on Chicago stages, apparently for the sole purpose of lowering our theatrical standards. Every other month it seems some company is doing a play by Nicky Silver, a man who writes as though he thought the haunted house episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show were the 20th century’s Hamlet. Currently Naked Eye is producing Diana Son’s subsitcom Stop Kiss, soon to be a feature film–a play that ran forever at the Public, apparently proving that nothing is more compelling than two hours of directionless chitchat by women who might be lesbians.

And now the Graces have conspired to bring us two plays by New York’s newest flash in the pan, Douglas Carter Beane, whose work displays the kind of shimmering fake seriousness that keeps so much contemporary playwriting on the brink of irrelevance. Best known for his screenplay To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, Beane knows how to generate a buzz. Several years back he formed a New York theater troupe called the Drama Dept., stocking it with famous people like Sarah Jessica Parker, Peter Gallagher, Billy Crudup, and, yes, Nicky Silver. Before they’d produced a single play they were featured in New York and Vanity Fair, and their early staged readings were humble affairs with special guests like Liza Minnelli.

Beane’s most recent play, As Bees in Honey Drown, was the first original script the Drama Dept. produced. It tells the story of Evan Wyler, a young novelist who comes under the spell of international jet-setter Alexa Vere de Vere. She corners him at a trendy New York restaurant, runs her mouth like a speed freak, and drops names and hundred dollar bills with cartoonish abandon, then throws a thousand smackers at him and coos that he must, simply must write the screenplay for the story of her life. It seems she’s either mad, stoned, or a con artist, but Evan instantly accepts, coming across as a complete fool.

Alexa whisks her new cohort through a whirlwind weekend of conspicuous consumption, buying new clothes and fancy meals and putting them up in a suite at the Royalton. Equally conspicuous is her unwillingness to pay for anything. She has only cash, she explains to Evan, and her ogre of an accountant demands receipts (no receipts if you pay cash?). Can’t Evan put it all on his credit card and she’ll reimburse him later? Although no money ends up in Evan’s hands after that first grand, he never questions her integrity–even after she proffers him a handful of bills, squirts him in the face with cologne, then puts the money back in her pocket. Despite his protestations of poverty, he signs for $15,000 worth of the bills she rings up.

An acting teacher in college once pointed out to us that audiences will believe what’s impossible so long as it’s probable, and they won’t believe what’s improbable even if it’s possible. It’s a shame Beane wasn’t around to hear that. He wants us to believe that every shred of Evan’s reason is annihilated by Alexa’s promises of fame and wealth as well as her feminine charms–yet Evan is gay. He says he’s fallen in love with her, but as in so many contemporary plays, Evan’s motivating passions are baldly pronounced rather than supported by dramatic action (or, in this case, inaction). When Alexa initially asks Evan to write her life story–in effect to give up all his other interests to tag along with her in her hedonistic demimonde–he explains in a long, snappy monologue that he’s so broke he’ll gladly accept her offer (another rule of contemporary playwriting: the best way to give a character dimension is to give him a snappy speech). But Beane never dramatizes Evan’s desperate need for money or stardom–a need that should be coming out his ears if we’re to believe in his immediate conversion to Alexa’s tissue-thin fantasy. When Evan meets Alexa–in the play’s second scene–we know nothing about him except that he wrote a book and grudgingly posed for a magazine photographer with his shirt off.

Other improbabilities are also explained away by the characters. Evan is falling for a woman? “She is so amazing in every way,” he declares, having watched her order food and talk a blue streak in the restaurant. “I want to protect her. Weird, huh?” That tag is meant to inject a note of ambivalence into Evan’s otherwise generic statement, I suppose, but instead it highlights its utter falseness. Beane expects motivation to arise out of dialogue rather than out of character–for in Evan he’s created no character at all, just a pleasant self-explanation machine.

Without a credible dramatic predicament to propel the action, Beane’s characters have to spend more and more time explaining anything and everything–essentially they have nothing else to do. In fact, once Alexa is revealed to be a con artist at the end of the first act, the second act is made up of one long explanation after another–of things we already know. First a movie producer once swindled by Alexa explains her tactics to Evan, all of which we’ve already seen. Still, to illustrate the producer’s argument, Alexa reappears and runs through highlights from the first act just in case our memory doesn’t exceed 45 minutes. Then Michael–Alexa’s first victim ever–explains through a long flashback how an eager nobody from Nowhere, Pennsylvania, transformed herself into the monstrous Alexa Vere de Vere. By the time Beane’s completed this dissertation on conning, he’s got about ten minutes to bring the play to a hasty conclusion, a conclusion peppered with many of the same flashbacks we’ve already seen. It’s as though Beane believed his audience to be as stupid as his protagonist.

We’re left with a play that’s eliminated every possible mystery. Seemingly lacking the skill or the interest to work through the conflicts established in the first act, Beane can only declare obvious truths like “conning is bad” and “being yourself is good.” And though in Alexa he strives to create a grande theatrical dame in the tradition of Auntie Mame, he’s simply regurgitated the misogynist fantasy of the man-eater. Say what you will about Mame’s self-absorption and thoughtlessness, she was never malicious.

Gary Griffin–a director who’s drawn emotionally nuanced performances from actors in the past–throws the cast of this Northlight Theatre production into high gear and steps on the gas. As Evan, Martin Yurek is so bouncy and eager he seems the male ingenue from a Busby Berkeley spectacle. Susan Hart fares much better as Alexa, crafting a beguilingly sinister character. But since Beane gives her precious little to do except speak in run-on sentences and call everyone “lamb,” she too outstays her welcome after a few scenes. The production’s human heart beats inside sprightly Mitchell Fain, who turns a handful of small roles into fully realized characters.

As much as Beane insults his audience with this empty-headed comedy, Northlight deals a heavier insult to a legion of accomplished but “unhot” Chicago writers who actually have something to say. New York may be the epicenter of hipdom, but considering the depth of playwriting talent in Chicago, how many more coy, talky, unmotivated sitcom knockoffs do we need to import?

At least Douglas Carter Beane’s abilities as a playwright seem to be improving. As Bees in Honey Drown may be vacuous and improbable, but the first act does contain some genuinely entertaining moments. By contrast an earlier play, Advice From a Caterpillar, is one of the most trivial works I’ve ever seen. Four characters spend a half dozen scenes chatting about nothing in particular–until they get to the subject of love. I’m not going to fall in love, each professes. Love is too complicated, too scary, too disruptive. It’s not for me. Nope, nope, nope. Of course two of them do fall in love–or rather, just as in As Bees in Honey Drown, they announce that they’ve fallen in love but rarely act like it. Once love has descended ex machina on a video artist and the lover of her gay best friend, the characters say profound things like “Life hasn’t got any guarantees” and “Love? What does that mean, anyhow?”

While most of us emerge from the senior prom with some inkling of what love means–and an interest in learning more–Beane gives us a quartet of featureless adults who flee from the slightest romantic attachment like 11-year-olds running from a game of spin the bottle. And apparently he thinks this adolescent emotional disengagement is so compelling that he can dispense with pesky details like scenic structure, plot devices, and character development.

Given nothing to work with, Grassroots Theatre Company not surprisingly doesn’t produce much, offering a perfunctory staging that fills in few of the holes in Beane’s script. Relationships don’t develop, and given the show’s leisurely pacing and numerous extended blackouts between scenes, neither does any momentum.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.