Heartland Arts and Chicago

Dramatists Workshop

Charles Graham is the model of the successful American WASP male, circa 1988. A former college athlete, he now has a lucrative career in marketing and advertising, an expensive house in the suburbs, an attractive and devoted wife, a son–everything a man could want. But one night an incident–in which the woman next door and her lover are murdered, presumably by the woman’s estranged husband–triggers a disturbance in Charles’s tranquility. Though his only claim to being anything but an innocent bystander is that he saw “a shape” run past his window following the shooting, he becomes obsessed with the crime. His performance at work flags, to the distress of his coworkers. He begins to doubt his wife’s fidelity. He experiments with drugs. He has an affair with his secretary. He dreams of selling the house, against the wishes of his bewildered wife, and moving to Maui. In short, all that is sure and secure about Charles’s life unravels before his eyes, while he stands as helpless to stop the disintegration as he was helpless to stop the killer next door.

So what else is new? ask all those who have read The Bonfire of the Vanities and know all about the sordid underside of life in the fast lane. But playwright John Bishop is not interested simply in mapping territory already explored (in the 1960 film The Apartment, among other places). Through the device of a lecturer-commentator, we learn of the Graham family’s legacy of violence and flight. From its beginnings in the region forming the boundary between England and Scotland, the Graham clan was forced to endure innumerable clashing armies and the accompanying rape, siege, and sack. Three hundred years of this existence, remarks the lecturer, “bred a race of hard people.” Eventually the Grahams turned to banditry themselves, and were banished by James I to the outlying colonies, one of which was America. But there the Grahams continue their history of being always in the wrong place at the wrong time, of war and betrayal, and of a continuing quest for a haven of peace and freedom. We come to see Charles’s unease not as an isolated phenomenon inspired by particular circumstances but as a culmination of all that has gone before.

“I just ran out of room,” Charles says at the close of Borderline. His is a world where the word “promise” has been reduced to the name of his company’s new shampoo, where his job requires not only industry but pledges of allegiance to satisfy what is called “upper-management comfort factors,” where even the police admit that they can’t stop the slaughter. “We can’t even stop presidents from getting shot,” says the detective investigating the neighborhood murder. “That’s the trouble with TV–it makes you think it’s all real.” Surrounded on all sides by barbarism, Charles concludes, “We manufacture and sell cosmetics, and the way we market these products is also cosmetic. . . . We promise that something will change . . . but that’s just cosmetics too, or painkillers.”

In the silence after the play’s curtain call, before the audience rose and departed, my companion remarked flippantly, “Let that be a lesson to you.” What, however, is the lesson of Borderline? That the sins of the father are visited on the children? That we can run but we can’t hide from our basic bestiality? That the disorder in the world today is the natural result of the frontier’s disappearance? That men are innately brutal, and civilization is an illusion? The only note of optimism Bishop allows is the decision of Charles’s wife to take their son–himself already showing signs of restlessness–home to her parents, offering at least a hope of a serene and settled environment. Charles makes no move to stop her, having already become enamored of his secretary, who shares his longing for transience and in whose blue-collar origins he sees, or imagines he sees, an enviable closeness to the earth and its primitive simplicity.

Joe Guastaferro has directed a tight, well-disciplined production, though it is not without its flaws, including his handling of the problematic character of the lecturer. Her function is obvious–she’s there to impart background information indispensable to our understanding of the play–and if she had been clearly established as someone whose business it is to know the genealogy of the Graham family, we would have had no trouble accepting her presence. Guastaferro, however, has his actress dress and act in a manner more appropriate to a television newscaster delivering the weather report than to a social anthropologist reciting the findings of her scholarly research, and that distracts us from her information far longer than it should. Linda Kroll seems uneasy with the amorphousness of her character’s personality, though she carries out her expository duties with poise and conviction.

Bruce Barsanti is perfect as Charles Graham, the hero as petty as the universe he inhabits. As his drug-and-hype-snorting coworkers, Linda May Kollmeyer (Karen) is brittle and polished to a glossy finish, and John Kelly (Dan), wearing suits that look like they were tailored for Groucho Marx, is the epitome of ad-hack obnoxiousness. Sandra Maschmeyer, though too much a world-class beauty to be quite believable as a humble secretary from the south side–even taking into account Charles’s Blue Angel fantasy–plays the role of Lee with intelligence and inventiveness. Tucker Brown projects a waiflike wistfulness as Susan, the housebound wife, while George Lugg, as the hard-bitten and cynical police detective, displays a subtle and fine-tuned humor. J. Fiedler Roth and Mike Kelley are similarly convincing as Kearney and Eddie, two more victims of social disorder. (Roth in particular is frighteningly plausible as the domestic killer–he never seems to do any specific thing to indicate menace, but the first sight of him chills our blood nevertheless.) Set designer Brian Traynor has assembled a dungeon vault of a set in stark blacks, whites, and grays, and Sandy Horwitz-Guastaferro follows this motif, clothing her cast in hard-surfaced fabrics so severe you could slash your wrists on someone’s lapel.

“Not with a bang, but a whimper” is how T.S. Eliot said the world would end–not in a dramatic cataclysm but through a banal and irrevocable erosion. Borderline is a grimly pessimistic indictment of a universe pregnant with its own Armageddon, doomed to perish in a whimper of small and meaningless deaths.