Chicago Dramatists Workshop

Robin Seidman’s Cows in a Snowstorm is a new play that’s not all that new unless you managed to avoid Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs. Both are memory plays about an adolescent Jewish boy with aspirations of becoming a writer. Although the central character in each play also acts as narrator, Seidman divides this task between two personas: the 15-year-old Seymour (protagonist) and the 30-year-old Seymour (bemused narrator and occasional alter ego). In a few scenes the elder Seymour even enters into his own flashbacks–in which case he’s invisible, like Cary Grant in Topper–but the effect is gratuitous and undramatic. Really, just about the only asset to this dual persona gimmick is that it manifests Seymour’s internal dialogue. And that is a very dubious asset.

Seymour is a kvetch. His enduring complaint is that he never earned his father’s respect and appreciation. The play opens at a retirement ceremony for his father, Martin, the high school football coach. Then the play flashes back to Seymour’s 15th year–the year he had his first date and tried out for the football team. Throw in a bar mitzvah, a heartbreak, and Seymour’s first published article, and you have your basic rite-of-passage play. Judging from the grown-up Seymour, this year was the high point of his life and the zenith of his emotional development. In the end, Seymour admits to never having gotten over the loss of his first love, although at least he discovers that his father really did respect him after all. So like, maybe now he’ll stop complaining, huh?

Cows in a Snowstorm badly fails the “So what?” test. Maybe if Seidman had chosen a central character of her own sex she could have beaten something out of the Neil Simon-Woody Allen dead horse. But that same old whining, oversensitive, athletically disinclined, misunderstood, precocious, witty, and horny but shy adolescent–egad! And we’re supposed to like this kid? Worst of all are Seymour’s compulsive witticisms. Check out this repartee with Seymour’s mom, Ida:

IDA: Oh, the muddy shoes, Seymour!

SEYMOUR: Guy’s got to leave his mark.

Then, just a few moments later:

IDA: Can you name one thing they have in California that we don’t have here?

SEYMOUR: Republicans with suntans?

Witty children like this should be strangled and not heard. At least you can’t accuse Simon or Allen of such bad dialogue. But this–this is like an evening with Bob Greene.

The supporting cast of characters offers no diversion, existing only to illustrate Seymour’s inferiority complex. Seymour’s football-hero brother, David, soaks up all their father’s praise. Seymour’s girlfriend Doris is successful too, having jump-roped her way into the Guinness Book of World Records. But none of these characters has a life in his own right. There’s even a fantasy scene where Seymour’s entire family gathers about his dead body, all of them dutifully morose but never realizing what a loss they’re facing. They’re made to seem unenlightened, their accomplishments trivial, because at the root of Seymour’s insecurity and envy is his humble conviction, not of his inferiority, but of his overwhelming superiority.

A little bit of Seymour goes a long way. You get so much of him here that the play dithers around, plotlessly, in the remembered past. I should say manicured past, since everything Seymour says and does betrays the contrivance of afterthought–amounting to what a nebbish would have said or done if only he had had the knack. Actually, Seymour never makes it back into the present tense of Martin’s retirement ceremony, but no problem, any ending, however inconsistent, is timely.

David Bontumasi plays the young Seymour with a facile and hyperactive energy, but he never manages a character that you could tolerate in your car pool. Christopher Kern, as the elder Seymour, is more relaxed and introspective but boring–put him in the backseat. The remaining characters are played rather superficially, except perhaps for Ida, Seymour’s mother (making Carol Whelan the best actor by default). But then the acting, as well as director Sherry Narens’s overall approach, is that nondescript, slightly exaggerated style that’s meant to suggest, by its theatricality, the skewed perspective of a memory play. You could use Tibetan masks and a strobe light and Cows in a Snowstorm would still lack even a fraction of the depth of a memory play like The Glass Menagerie.

There’s an old joke where a guy holds up a blank sheet of paper and someone asks, “What’s that?” and the guy says “It’s a picture of cows in a snowstorm.” And Seymour, he doesn’t want to be just another cow in a snowstorm. Sort of ironic, isn’t it? An old joke that everyone’s heard before, and an aspiring writer with a fear of obscurity. Seidman could have saved us all a lot of time if she’d just held up a blank sheet of paper.

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