Zebra Crossing Theatre

at the Avenue Theatre

Chicago playwright Joel Johnson’s As the Beaver is based on a too-clever-by-half comedy-sketch premise: June and Ward Cleaver, who live in a suburb populated by characters from other sitcoms, are suddenly confronted with the fact that the Beaver is gay. It’s the sort of premise that usually wears thin after a quarter hour or so, after the easy laughs that come from seeing familiar characters in unfamiliar situations wear off. How many times after all can you be surprised at the sight of the Cleavers and the Ricardos chatting like old friends or of Mr. Ed poking his nose through the kitchen window for a tete-a-tete about Theodore? Even the sight of the Beaver and Little Ricky necking loses it punch after the first kiss.

Happily, Johnson quickly transcends the easy laughs, using his premise to accomplish something considerably more ambitious: he ruthlessly deconstructs the mindless, superficial worldview of 50s and early 60s sitcoms. It’s a deconstruction that’s long overdue, since it’s becoming increasingly clear that family-values jerks have based all their notions of the healthy family not on actual American family life but on the sanitized, heterosexual (though essentially sexless), Anglo-Saxon world of TV of that era.

Soon after the play starts, Johnson begins raising the stakes–making Beaver gay is a mischievous but not especially adventurous first step. It takes an inspired writer to keep pushing the limits of his premise–to the point where comedy turns into tragicomedy, and mild joshing into astringent satire. It isn’t that Johnson’s comedy is solemn–far from it. The play is often hilarious, thanks in part to the playwright’s great ear for formulaic sitcom dialogue (if I didn’t know better, I might think whole passages of As the Beaver were lifted verbatim from reruns).

What makes the play more than just another example of baby-boomer boob-tube worship is Johnson’s recognition of the darker sides of these TV characters’ personalities and therefore of the more poignant sides of their stories. When Beaver is caught in a compromising position with Little Ricky, it provokes crises in both the Cleaver and Ricardo households, but the Cleavers implode and the Ricardos explode. June Cleaver, attuned to the then-current pop-psych attitude that strong-willed women turn their sons into homosexuals, blames herself. Beaver too is racked by self-loathing, which leads to a suicide attempt. Meanwhile Lucy wails, and Ricky, bursting with wounded machismo, severely beats Little Ricky, then packs him off to a Cuban military school. Yet Ricky Ricardo doesn’t come off as simply a violence-prone hothead father but as a man whose strict code of acceptable male behavior has totally alienated him from his hysterical wife and depressive son.

Just when it looks as if Johnson has exhausted his premise he leaps ahead two decades, from the mid-60s to the mid-80s, to show just how Beaver and company are faring in post-Stonewall, Reagan-era America. I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone (it’s quite glorious), but I can say that some of the most moving moments in the play come when we realize how the different responses–anger, denial, grudging acceptance–of three TV families to their sons’ sexual preferences have scarred, stunted, or liberated them.

Johnson doesn’t deserve all the credit–much of it should go to director Timber Weise for his light touch and to the cast, who have considerable comic gifts. At the top of this list is Russell Alan Rowe, whose impersonation of Ricky Ricardo is so on the mark it’s scary. He has every Arnaz tic and mannerism down cold–the abrupt gestures, the forced, cheerless smile. Tucker Brown as Lucy gets many of that character’s more frequently imitated nonverbal cues right–the hysterical crying jags, the wide-eyed look of shock. For brief flashes, she’s the spitting image of the queen of 50s sitcoms. Still, next to Rowe’s Ricky, her Lucy pales.

Michael Lomenick and Ann James would never in life be confused with Hugh Beaumont and Barbara Billingsley, but their takes on Ward and June reveal more about the Cleavers’ sick family dynamics than the most accurate impersonations could. James plays June as a Nancy Reagan-style passive aggressive–velvet on the outside, iron on the inside–who bullies all the boys in her family, including her pliable husband. Lomenick’s Ward comes off as an ineffectual little man trapped in his own little world, long on stories of growing up–he even reminisces about his childhood friend Andy Hardy–but short on genuinely useful fatherly advice. Joel Sugerman would never be confused with Jerry Mathers, but his take on Beaver reveals volumes about the boy and, later, the man.

In fact there isn’t a weak link in this ensemble. Kevin Farrell as Eddie Haskell and Robin M. MacDuffie (so strong in the Neo-Futurists’ recent 70 Scenes of Halloween) as Wally are both quite good. But among the supporting characters the standout is Scott Olson’s Opie Taylor. The sudden entrance of this strong, loving, open-minded character three-quarters of the way through the show gives it such a strong shot of healthy optimism that it made me sad the play ended so soon afterward.

What a joy that this terrific cast was given such a fine script. And vice versa.


Pillar Studio

And what a shame Wallace Shawn’s difficult, intelligent play, Marie and Bruce, fell into the thumb-filled hands of the folks at the Pillar Studio. Mind you, it takes a fairly strong production–on the order of Tight & Shiny’s marvelous version of several years ago–for there to be any hope of revealing all the comedy in this 90-minute exploration of one of the sickest stage relationships in American theater this side of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But it would be hard to imagine a production that misses the mark more completely than this abysmal exercise in high school drama-club mugging and self-indulgence does.

Where to begin? Everyone telegraphs jokes like mad; none of Shawn’s sly humor comes off. There isn’t a watt of electricity between Tracy Landecker’s goony, hyperactive Marie and Ian Belknap’s goofy, wooden Bruce–this in a play that supposedly explores the no-exit private hell this shrew and worm have made for each other.

But it wasn’t until halfway through, during the play’s extended party scene, that it became clear these kids didn’t have a clue what this play is about. Amy Landecker directs a long passage of witty, subtle New Yorker-style pseudointellectual cocktail chat–Shawn cuts back and forth between various talkers as they natter on narcissistically about bosses and books, trying to impress and seduce each other–as if it were just another noisy rock ‘n’ roll bash. In fact the music is so loud, the sound cues so obvious (each time Shawn cuts from one conversation to another, Landecker changes the music), and the lines so badly delivered that it’s impossible to make sense of Shawn’s marvelous dialogue beyond the obvious: that these are people at a party talking.

The only worthwhile thing in this whole misbegotten mess is Stephanie Nelson’s clever, eye-pleasing, cartoonish set. Even that would have been better suited to a broader, more absurdist work–say Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano or Albee’s The American Dream–than to Shawn’s quiet, more or less naturalistic, extremely pessimistic comedy.

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