Theatre of the Reconstruction

Guys are pigs, granted. They swill beer, whack off to porn magazines, degrade women in the workplace, and talk trash about them in private. In these politically correct times, an even more curious type of porcine manhood has arisen. This animal talks a good game, empathizing with women’s struggles and decrying our male-dominated society. But he uses all this new 90s sensitivity in yet another effort to get laid.

The men in Scott Turner’s plays Dates Without Chicks and Magazines, in production at Theatre of the Reconstruction, grapple with issues of sexual harassment and exploitation but wind up essentially as prisoners of their own piggishness. Turner’s plays take a politically correct stance, but they’re predictable and excessively preachy, not allowing the characters or the audience to arrive at the obvious conclusions by themselves.

Dates Without Chicks is the more effective and entertaining of the two plays. Buddy (Paul Tamney) and Guy (Mark Hanks) meet weekly in Guy’s bar to hash out the week’s shit, discuss the women they coulda scored with, and play beer games. We follow their progress from week to week as they talk about falling in and out of love and fight about what true love really is. All the while, Buddy and Guy’s behavior is examined and dissected by a man and a woman in lab coats who observe the scenes from two cages at the back of the stage.

Turner’s ear for dialogue is sharp, and the rapid-fire repartee is often hilarious and true. At its best, Dates Without Chicks works as an updated Sexual Perversity in Chicago with a kinder, gentler slant. But when the lab-coated observers comment on the scenes with their grad-school-claptrap references to the oppressiveness of modern society and the nature of postindustrial gender roles, you can see the author desperately striving to make a big statement and coming up empty. And even though Turner seems to be using them to poke fun at society’s need to categorize and label things, his message that we just “have to get along,” as one character puts it, is so overstated as to be totally uninteresting.

Still, the play is a lot of fun to watch. Tamney and Hanks clearly enjoy every second of their He-Man Woman Hater’s Club ritual. Their performances should be instantly recognizable to anyone who’s had the misfortune of being at a frat party or strolling down Division Street on a Saturday night. And beware if you’re sitting in the front row during one of Buddy and Guy’s drinking games.

Less effective as either theater or agitprop is Magazines, which takes us to Steevy Wangz Pizza Palace, where Skeeter (Hanks), an oafish, porn-reading restaurant manager, is forced to come to terms with his own role in the exploitative system when Jo (Tina Steele), the new worker, decides she won’t put up with his subtle and not-so-subtle sexism any longer.

Tough, savvy Jo dresses down the hapless Skeeter and pursues a relationship with Jake (Tamney), a cool-as-a-cucumber pizza-shop regular. The plot thickens as Skeeter takes revenge on Jo by bad-mouthing her to Jake and then implying that if she’ll go out with him instead he’ll stop reading his Playboys around her.

One of the problems with the play is that Turner stacks the deck so heavily against Skeeter that listening to him argue about how pictures of naked women don’t hurt anybody just isn’t compelling. In Turner’s characterization, Skeeter is a cartoon, a city boy’s idea of a “backwards-ass country fuck” who talks in a lazy backwoods drawl. It’s not very difficult for Jo to take this guy apart, and when she does she states her objection in such a cliched way that watching her and Skeeter go at it is like watching a rerun of a TV talk show: not only are they all spouting generalizations, you know what they’re going to say before they say it.

The more militant of the politically correct thought police might have a problem with the fact that Jo doesn’t grow confident enough to really lay down the law with Skeeter until she’s met Jake, but the main problem with Magazines is that it’s a political issue in search of a play. The ideas are all there, but the characters are flat, the plot is pushed and pulled to fit the needs of the agenda, and the ending is too abrupt. If the characters had been allowed more room to develop, Turner might have had a more intellectually challenging play on his hands. By playing it safe and setting up straw men to shoot down, Turner stifles the debate before it begins.