at Urbus Orbis
The five one-acts that make up Mainline Productions’ Cold Chambers are as bleak a set of plays as you are likely to see in Chicago these days. Hopeless, humorless, and extremely dark, each one studies a different aspect of the same milieu–the world of the disaffected, disenchanted, disenfranchised young, living in the unrehabbed tenements on the fringes of gentrification. These are the kids from the middle and lower classes who didn’t go to good schools–or who did but couldn’t afford to finish–and who now work, when they work at all, at the worst jobs in the city. Though hardly the best minds of their generation, they live lives as desperate as any in Ginsberg’s beaten and ragged band.
In the first one-act, 3814, a depressed and angry couple, Tony and Nell, bicker and pick at each other in an apartment strewn with newspapers. Unemployed and broke, they live in a world that makes the Honeymooners’ lot look like easy street: “Turn on the radio.” “It’s broke.” “Oh, yeah.” They spend their days fighting in the most sterile terms: “Fuck you.” “No, fuck you.” Even when things are quiet between them, their barely repressed hostility and disappointment poison what could be a sweet moment. “Tony?” Nell asks. “Could you give me a hug?” “I’m smoking a cigarette,” he replies. “Put it out.” “This is my last one.” “I’ll give you one of mine.” “I hate Winstons.” “I’ll buy you a pack of Camels.” “You already owe me a pack.” And so on and so forth until you can’t help but hope Nell will shoot Tony just to shut him up.
Each of playwright Joe Larocca’s five plays is similarly relentless in its portrayal of barren, cramped lives. Larocca’s characters don’t have the imagination or the resources to improve their lot. So instead they stew in their own stagnant juices, until they lash out at others or collapse inward into psychosis.
Lashing out dominates Thin Lines, in which two friends, Grant and Curt, hang around backstage at a rock show arguing about a woman who may or may not have betrayed one of them by going to the concert with someone else. In the end their friendship falters when Grant, the more sensible of the two, loses patience with his obsessive friend—“Why do you persist in this bullshit?”–and Curt takes offense: “You’re a dick.”
In Cannu-La-La, a young man is driven mad by the world around him. Seething with anger, he hangs around a street corner carrying on a long, twisted argument with a lover who’s not there (though we see her) about something someone told her a long time ago that she may or may not have told him. This convoluted conversation is further complicated by the fact that neither can remember what it was that was told her. The resulting fuguelike dialogue is woven through with repeating variations: the man says “You didn’t tell me” or “What did you tell me?” and the woman replies “I remember I told you” or “I don’t remember.” This form perfectly reflects the troubled man’s obsessive thought patterns, which are tied tip like a Gordian knot.
In Terror Couple, two young lovers out for a walk run into an urban eccentric who seems harmless and whimsical enough at first but soon shows his kinship with Jerry, the hostile, violent vagrant in Edward Albee’s Zoo Story.
Larocca certainly knows this side of the street–maybe too well. This familiarity and his good ear for dialogue give his plays a certain poignancy and power that don’t quite make up for the fact that Larocca as a playwright is still pretty green. Not one of the five one-acts in Cold Chambers works all the way through, and none is, strictly speaking, dramatic. Larocca works very hard to create a situation or mood, but once he’s done so, he doesn’t allow it to develop. All too often his plots grind to a halt, hopelessly bogged down by pointless dialogue and characters who have nowhere to go. Ultimately, Larocca’s plays don’t end, they expire. This is nowhere more apparent than in Larocca’s fifth play of the evening, the punkier-than-thou Mexican Roulette. Little more than an extended skit, it concerns two junkies who spend the whole one-act talking about the trivial details of their lives as they play a variation of Russian roulette involving a loaded hypo taped to a lazy Susan. This sketch ends with the “winning” junkie passing out.
Mainline’s shoestring production complements Larocca’s work well (though the newspaper that litters the apartment in 3814 should not have been the Sunday edition of the Chicago Tribune–Tony says he can’t look for work because he forgot to buy one that weekend).
Of the cast of four, only Larocca was able to speak his lines with any consistent conviction. In fact, Larocca shows considerable range as an actor, playing with equal capability angry young men, deeply troubled psychotics, and all-but-burnt-out drug addicts. The remaining cast members need much more practice before their stage work looks like anything but “acting.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/James Alexander Newberry.