Next Lab

Plays about blue-collar Brits are popular this season, and John Godber would appear to be the most popular playwright representing the genre, ahead of Willy Russell (Shirley Valentine) and Mike Stott (The Fancy Man) in number of plays produced in Chicago in the last year. Thanks to Stage Left’s production of Godber’s Teechers and Body Politic’s production of his September in the Rain, we Yanks now know that economic depression and social stratification lie heavily upon the empire; that husbands grub and grunt, wives drudge and dither, and marriages are made by inertia; that fucking and fighting, being free, are the major recreational pastimes of the young gentry.

In Godber’s Bouncers, four doormen re-create a typical Friday night on the job at the Mr. Cinders disco. The evening begins with them waiting restlessly for the pubs to close and the customers to arrive (bars in England open at 5 PM and close some five to six hours later, during which hours the more raffish patrons chug as much alcohol as they can before proceeding to the evening’s entertainment). Tonight’s crowd at Mr. Cinders includes the usual varieties of condom-carrying studs and 18 going on 35 dollies; the Saint Luke’s College rugby team, who hold a drinking contest–the loser drops his trousers to dance; the spike-haired Punks, who call the doormen “fascist pigs” and threaten to write a song about them; the metal-head who exhorts the DJ to play “summat decent” (“Have you got any Yes?” “Who?” “They’ll do too”); a Dudley Moore soundalike who titters about “one more bottle of champers”; and a few guys the bouncers allow into the club solely for the fun of throwing them out later.

As the evening grinds on amid flashing lights and artificial smoke, we hear the DJ promise free admission for two weeks to anyone who brings him a matching set of bra and panties, and we learn why the restrooms are called “bogs” (“Your Hush Puppies are seeping through to your socks . . . one slip, and you’re up to your hip in urine”). We see the denizens of this universe dance and weep and grope one another–there is even one good free-for-all, sparked by the fury of a woman scorned. Finally it’s closing time, the house is evacuated, the odd change and underwear are cleaned up from the floor, and the bouncers can relax with a few drinks and an X-rated video chosen especially for the occasion.

Don’t get the idea that these four are content to simply recount their tales. In the approximately one-hour running time of the play, they assume the personalities of no less than 35 characters (including five flirtatious females), sometimes in such quick succession that we really seem to see more than four actors on the stage. Director Dexter Bullard appears to have no end of inventive tricks in staging this play, which could easily become gloomy and sluggish (the entertainment value of four antisocial blokes standing around talking quickly wears thin).

So when the young bucks are preparing for the evening, they check their readiness in the manner of a military drill: “Talc on genitals?” “Check!” “Clean underwear?” “Well . . . they’ll do!” When all are found to be deficient in the “breath” department, they vow to drown the halitosis in beer. At another point one of the bouncers confronts three drunk students and, upon discovering that any utterance of their school’s name is met with a concerted cheer, turns to the nearest audience member and asks, “Do you know where these sods come from?” The students roar when the alma mater is named. Audience members are also encouraged to dance while waiting for the show to begin, and are shooed out after it with a brusque “Last call! Time to go home, now–we’ve got to clean up in here!” (The lady sitting next to me wondered, “Do they have to do a second show tonight?”)

Under Bullard’s innovative direction, the four actors–Sean Baldwin, Glenn Bugala, Eric Winzenried, and Frank Dominelli–carry out their duties with the precision demanded by their multiple roles (and miming the action of a pornographic video being run backwards, as Winzenried and Dominelli do at one point, requires a substantial amount of precision). The result is ensemble work as interactively tight as the fingers of a single hand.

The equally agile digits of the other hand consist of Adam Buhler and James Hayes, who keep the music running and the toilets flushing at exactly the right volume and tempo; Robert G. Smith, whose lights reproduce perfectly the plutonian chaos of a cut-rate glitter palace; dialect coach Michael Cates, whose factory-belt accents manage to be always intelligible, while still the most accurate I’ve heard all year; and stage manager David Schulte, who keeps each hand apprised of the other’s doings.

Bouncers is not without social commentary–most of the partyers are spending their welfare money, and the four sergeants at arms freely admit to being rougher with the rich and higher-class patrons–none of which should come as any great news to even the most insular Americans. The pleasure of this production comes not from any minor political kick, but from the sense that we are there experiencing this environment–which at first seems so foreign to us, but which we gradually recognize as not so very foreign after all. I didn’t dance at Mr. Cinders before the show, but next time I just might.

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