Goodman Studio Theatre

From a distance of, say, three rows from the stage all playwright Keith Reddin’s relationships begin to look the same: all those failing marriages, hellish dynamics at work, twisted family interactions, all those glib, hip, half-witty conversations that never get to the point or leap to it so quickly you know both the speaker and the listener have missed something essential.

Sometimes this sameness works to Reddin’s advantage, as in Big Time, where the blandness of the characters becomes a wonderful comic critique of superficial, amoral white middle-class professionals during the last anxious years of the Reagan “recovery.” At other times it interferes with Reddin’s artistic ambitions. He falters whenever he tries to plumb his characters’ emotional depths simply because there are no depths to be plumbed. He doesn’t create striking, three-dimensional characters; he creates caricatures: a sadistic entrepreneur (Life and Limb), a shallow yuppie (Big Time), a grandiose director (Black Snow).

This is the problem with Brutality of Fact, Reddin’s brittle, witty play about two middle-aged sisters and their mother trying to cope with divorce, aging, and death. Its best moments come when Reddin wrings laughs out of his characters’ contradictions and their fumbled attempts to deal with their lives. The scene in which Maggie, the alcoholic sister, flees an AA meeting because she doesn’t want to pour her heart out to strangers and then pours her heart out to a stranger in a bar is priceless.

The most awkward moments come when Reddin leaves comedy behind and attempts to create art. This is nowhere more apparent than in the confrontation scene near the end of the play, in which he reveals that the born-again sister, Jackie, has as sick a relationship with her Jehovah’s Witness boyfriend as she ever had with her ex-husband and that her religion is as much an evasion as Maggie’s drinking and their mother’s wisecracking denial. He’s already told us that Jackie’s messed up in a thousand little jokes and jabs, so why break the comic tone to tell us once again?

Reddin is essentially a talented comic writer who, like Woody Allen, wants desperately to say something serious. Unfortunately he, again like Allen, is under the impression that funny scenes don’t communicate serious messages and that all you have to do to create a serious scene is make your jokes less funny. Maggie is hilarious because her evasion is so transparent, so familiar. But just because we’re laughing doesn’t mean we don’t also understand that she’s once again turned her back on a chance to give up drinking. These characters are funny because they’re like us, only more so.

But they’re not hyperrealistic transcriptions from real life. Reddin has simplified them, exaggerating their flaws and foibles so that we know exactly how we’re supposed to feel about them within seconds of their entrances. Thus Jackie, the straight man in this comedy, has no redeeming qualities: from first to last she’s inflexible, small-minded, and confused.

I’m not complaining. A heightened, cartoonish worldview is essential to comedy. But this black-and-white world also guarantees that when Reddin decides to make a serious point–as when near the end of the play we see the degree to which Jackie is herself a lost soul–his message seems obvious and heavy-handed. It’s merely a comedy scene stripped of its humor.

When Reddin is content to amuse, the show soars. When he decides it’s time to get serious, the show stalls. And there’s nothing director Michael Maggio or his cast of accomplished comic actors–Leslie Lyles is fabulous as Maggie–can do about it.

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