Immoral Imperatives

Victory Gardens Theater

A strange sense of 70s deja vu permeates Jeffrey Sweet’s latest play, now receiving its world premiere at Victory Gardens under Calvin MacLean’s direction. Its attitude is earnest boomer self-fascination, its sexual politics and part of the story are lifted from Looking for Mr. Goodbar, and the Key West setting (captured well by set designer John Stark) made me think of Jimmy Buffett.

Sweet’s last show at Victory Gardens was The Action Against Sol Schumann, a rewarding piece that tackled questions of identity, the debt we owe history, and reaching a middle ground between vengeance and justice. This time around, however, Sweet is working in a more modest (and oft mined) domestic vein. The disappointing result is not the fault of the cast (including Dennis Zacek, making his first acting appearance at the theater he runs since 1995 in Never the Sinner). Nor has MacLean’s sprightly staging done any disservice to the script.

The problem is that Sweet’s play demands a level of emotional investment from the audience that his story doesn’t warrant: it’s full of holes so big you could drive a Humvee through them. The play’s emotional and logistic gaps detract from what should have been a simple, moving tale of a middle-aged married couple facing their twilight years with a cheery bravado and some unusual solutions to the problems of aging, masking their deep fears.

Hank (Zacek), a retired professor, and Teri (Kristine Thatcher) have left behind a cold Massachusetts university town for the laid-back world of Key West, where they quickly acquire a housemate, Dale (Tim Grimm), an old friend of Hank’s whose fishing-boat home has been commandeered by Cubans lonely for Havana. But there’s no back story on how an academic befriended beach bum Dale, one of the first instances in which Sweet’s script strains credulity. And when Teri tells Dale how she and Hank met–one of his students, she had an affair with him that ended his first marriage–one wonders why, if Dale and Hank are such good friends, this rather significant story never came up before.

Eventually we come to see that Dale has been brought to their home, consciously or not, as a boy toy for Teri. Hank, who’s impotent, worries that his wife’s trysts with strangers are growing dangerous. And indeed they are: Teri ends up in an emergency room when an angry divorced guy she picks up in a bar bashes her around a bit. Oddly, no one–including Teri–seems very concerned by this brush with a possibly homicidal stranger. Yet it finally convinces Hank that, golly gosh, maybe Teri’s approach isn’t such a hot idea and Dale should be recruited. Hank’s previous lack of concern and of ingenuity when it comes to satisfying his wife himself are puzzling, and more than a little disturbing, given his protestations of love. The threat of HIV infection never comes up, and Viagra is ruled out as a possible solution to the problem only obliquely, when Hank vaguely refers to “medical conditions” that make drugs unfeasible. There’s some amusing comic business with a penile pump when Hank explains the situation to Dale, but Sweet’s contrivances to get Dale into bed with Teri detract from the emotional component that might have given their relationship some stakes.

Darker shadings emerge in the second act, when Hank reveals health problems that are decidedly grimmer than the usual failures of the twig and berries. Dale’s brassy ex-girlfriend Liz (Linda Reiter) also enters the picture after a failed reconciliation with her scumbag ex-husband. In a nicely rendered scene, Dale calls Teri on her snotty, almost prudish attitude toward Liz. But this scene too is problematic given that Teri’s mostly been represented as a hot-to-trot trophy wife. The actresses are not to blame, however–I don’t think Thatcher or Reiter could have done much more with their underwritten parts. As in so many plays (and movies and TV shows), the women here are defined almost entirely by their relationships with men (though Sweet does drop in a few references to Teri’s career as a caseworker for refugees).

The cardboard female characters mean that, by default, the most satisfying aspect of the play is the two men’s relationship. And it’s a treat to see Zacek’s understated portrayal of the rueful, acerbic, compassionate Hank. His monologue about how Disneyfication has engendered a fake nostalgia for a simpler, less dangerous life–one of the best pieces of writing in the play–is perfectly modulated. Grimm is utterly charming and sympathetic as Dale, lifting his character above the ranks of stereotypical bumbling Peter Pan slackers. Dale is the play’s real emotional center, and Grimm fully commits to the hoary moral quandaries Sweet gives him (“Do I sleep with my best friend’s wife or let her keep taking her chances with drunken psychos?”).

To be absolutely fair, my uneasiness with Immoral Imperatives might have something to do with resentment of boomers’ continuing narcissism. The Big Chill didn’t interest me much either, and dressing the story up in beachwear doesn’t change that. But I doubt even the most committed keepers of the boomer flame will find much here to challenge them.

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