Off Bowery Theater

at Urbus Orbis

Many playwrights might have opted to stay with a proven formula. But Eric C. Anderson, whose four-character, single-premise Buddah Haus (only his third play) won him critical attention, decided to attempt a more challenging, more difficult play. The resulting comedy, Better Red in Bed, is not as unified as Buddah Haus, but even with all its flaws it represents an ambitious step forward in the development of a talented new playwright.

Better Red in Bed’s publicity calls it “a look at the cold war in Chicago that’s black and white and Red all over,” and sure enough two of the major targets of the play’s satire are Marxists and investigative journalists. One of them, Jo Snide (“You’ve seen my column, ‘Snide Lines,’ every day on page two of the Daily Grind”), tells us in an expository speech that the play also contains “all the elements that make a drama compelling . . . attempted murder, conspiracy, love interest, corrupt politicians, pimps, prostitutes, gangsters, mistaken identities, and of course the exposition of one acute psychological disorder.”

That’s a lot of story line to fit into less than two hours, but Better Red in Bed does it. The plot revolves around two identical twin brothers–Harry O’Leary, the mayor of Chicago, and Larry O’Leary, the alderman of an unidentified ward. When leftist Larry decides to run for mayor against his brother, right-wing Harry declares his sibling is a communist who must be eliminated from the race to protect the family name. With the aid of his loyal but unscrupulous son, Lackey O’Leary, he concocts a plan to involve Larry in a sex scandal. Lackey’s girlfriend, Karla, is to pretend to be a prostitute and lure Larry to her studio, where they are to be discovered–uh, red-handed–by none other than Snide herself. Hot on their trail and determined to foil their scheme, however, is Larry’s own loyal and unscrupulous son Leon T. O’Leary (whose mysterious middle initial is the basis for yet another plot complication).

Unlike Buddah Haus, which made the “older generation” its chief object of satire, Better Red in Bed treats the elder O’Learys as weary prisoners of their prestigious positions–even as it acknowledges their vices. Harry, after all, is willing to go to dishonorable lengths to ruin his brother, and Larry’s predilection for prostitutes is what offers the perfect opportunity to cause his downfall. Far harsher, however, are the portrayals of the youthful characters, particularly Lackey, who emerges as one of the slimiest young cads since Eddie Haskell (Lackey is also so dense that he thinks Das Kapital is pornography when Karla tells him it’s about the domination of the proletariat). Leon is presented a little more sympathetically but is still cartoonishly earnest and idealistic (he tries to comfort his father by saying, “You’re beginning to show the classic signs of male menopause so common among the upper-capitalist classes”). Karla claims to be an artist but spends her days sleeping or being lovesick–she defends her relationship with the abusive Lackey with a feeble, “I know he’s no good for me, but when has love ever been good for anyone?” Anderson’s sharpest barbs are saved for Jo Snide, who is pictured throughout as ambitious, egotistical, single- minded, selfish, and so dictatorial that even the newsroom coffee boy refuses to wait on her.

This is a much more cynical view of the world than Anderson’s previous plays have shown–closer to the bitter amorality of Joe Orton than to the ultimately life-affirming mockery of Oscar Wilde. Which is not to say that these unsavory characters are not vastly entertaining. A large chunk of play’s running time is taken up with plot mechanics, but it also contains plenty of the parry-and-riposte dialogue that has become Anderson’s stock-in-trade. At one point Harry asks Lackey, “Are you still seeing that Czechoslovakian girl?” “She’s not a Czech chick, Pop,” his son explains. “She’s a bohemian artist.” To which his father absently replies, “Yes, they all are over there, aren’t they? Even their new prime minister is a playwright or some such nonsense.” Later, Lackey gloats over the anticipated recognition they will receive for their exposure of Larry’s political and sexual affinities: “We’ll be heroes like Ollie North!” “Ollie North is a Republican!” his father shouts in horror. In addition to topical commentary and a few standard-issue digs (“The Guardian Angels owe me a favor,” brags Snide, and then smiles nostalgically; “All men in uniform owe me a favor”), Better Red in Bed has a running gag in its use of an all-purpose Property Person to play numerous auxiliary characters. Chagrined by the other characters’ cavalier treatment of him and inspired by the Marxist talk he hears in the course of the play, the Property Person eventually stages a spontaneous strike in mid-production and refuses to budge until the entire company agree to schlepp their own scenery at his direction.

After keeping to a rather fixed roll since its inception, the Off Bowery Theater has added some new members for this production. Fred Saas wears the thankless role of Lackey as though it had been tailored for him (he also bears an uncanny physical resemblance to Ed Vrdolyak, which adds another dimension to the political allegory). Steve Tanner brings a fanatical edge to the crew-cut and apple-cheeked Leon, and Debi Gatewood, though never quite getting a handle on her character, is a lean and leonine Karla. Off Bowery veteran Joel Sanchez plays both Harry and Larry O’Leary with a shell-shocked stare and a boyish wistfulness, while the exquisite Cheryl Anderson as Jo Snide continues to display the serene ditziness and breezy Katharine Hepburn delivery that make her one of the most promising comedic actresses practicing in Chicago.

The endurance award goes to newcomer Marty Brandenburg, who gives a nice chameleonlike performance as the put-upon Property Person. The program credits don’t make clear who’s responsible for the relentlessly black, white, and red sets and costumes, but commendations are in order for a visual motif that is almost as funny as the verbal and physical action it accompanies.