The Swinger

at Live Bait Theater, through July 3

Blurred Vision

Tellin’ Tales Theatre

at Live Bait Theater, through June 27

Rob Howard is a thirtysomething, happily married Jewish lawyer whose lean good looks suggest solid time put in at the health club and other loci of cosmetic activity. Tekki Lomnicki is a 47-year-old, regretfully single Roman Catholic dwarf who spent the first 12 years of her life in a hospital, trying to work her legs out of what she describes as a soft-pretzel twist. Entirely by coincidence, both are at Live Bait Theater–on separate stages–performing autobiographical monologues that recount their confrontations with American medicine.

Their performances overlap, so when I showed up for Howard’s show, The Swinger, their audiences were sharing the Live Bait lobby. Talk about your studies in contrast! Howard’s people looked like my cousins from Northbrook (and, based on what I heard of their conversation, may very well have been his): well-heeled and well-tended. Lomnicki’s included the blind, the stunted, the wheelchair bound, and the morbidly obese. I have to say I was relieved to think I’d be spending the next hour with the Northbrook types. Not only did they look better–and make me feel better, thinking I was basically one of them–but I imagined they’d be having the better time given what I supposed would be Lomnicki’s emphasis on the bummer that is disability.

Now I’ve seen both shows. The culturally correct thing would be to say that I was wrong, and in this case the culturally correct thing happens to be correct. Though The Swinger has clearly benefited from the participation of Brigid Murphy, who coached the writing and directed, it’s nothing more than a good-hearted banality, an amiable amateur exercise that only a cousin could or should love. The ostensibly marginal Lomnicki piece, on the other hand, turns out to be a small marvel: a masterly artifice with a true heart. It’s not only healthy-person accessible but completely, delightfully enthralling. That is to say, universal.

Not that Howard’s story is without its universal dimension. The Swinger recounts the years Howard and his wife, Andi, spent struggling with infertility–a topic with which anyone born of woman might identify and that carries a special charge in times like ours, when technology has made it possible virtually never to give up “trying.” The vast array of procedures available seems to have triggered a special hysteria in many would-be parents who feel trapped between their longing, their exhaustion, and their sense that there’s no way off the therapeutic train. Howard threatens to acknowledge some of that, hinting at one point that Andi’s desire for a family has crossed over into a marriage-damaging obsession. But he never pursues the thought very far, nor wonders why he feels compelled to reproduce genetically when there are plenty of fine preowned babies on the market. He just plain never mentions adoption at all. His one great critique of the fertility process is that it threatens his good time. “What do we need a baby for?” he whines to Andi. “I’m your baby.” Even his inevitable negotiations with God–whom he of course addresses Tevye style, with eyes cast coyly upward–are basically narcissistic displays: How can you do this to me when I go to temple three times a year?

The problem is that Howard wants to be our baby too, and that means always going for the easy laugh, the charming pose, and the endearing anecdote even when doing so betrays the material’s gravity. Worse, Howard’s jokes, poses, and bouts of sentiment are uniformly trite. (The one and only time he surprised me in the course of an hour was also the one time he offended me, by reciting the Hebrew blessing for reading the Torah while pretending to hump his wife. I’m sure she loved that bit, too.) Worse still, he lacks the chops to make the triteness work for him. His voice is a monotone, his face inexpressive beyond the boyish smile, and he sometimes scurries to hit his marks like a beginner learning to cha-cha.

When I saw The Swinger, I sat behind a friend of Howard’s. Maybe a cousin. Someone, in any case, who knew that Howard had performed in The Music Man as a kid. This guy laughed enthusiastically at the punch lines, wiped away tears at the tender moments, and leapt to his feet during the applause. He clearly thought Howard was supremely talented, which must be a very wonderful thing for Howard. My advice is, Let that be enough.

It would be an awful shame, however, if Tekki Lomnicki were confined to any particular constituency. She’s everything Howard needs to be: a talented comic actor with a wildly expressive face who understands the concept of showing rather than telling and applies it powerfully.

An easy irony, but true: where Howard is bound by his limited onstage skills, Lomnicki’s offstage limitations don’t prevent her from ranging vividly through a wide array of settings and characters. Or from taking us with her. A sort of sick man’s Wizard of Oz, Blurred Vision presents Lomnicki as a hypochondriacal Dorothy wandering among the radiologists, the ophthalmologist-neurologists, the gynecologists, the naprapaths, and the spirit guides, asking not how to get home but whether she has cancer–which, in a weird way, turns out to be the same question.

Though the ending is somewhat abrupt and saccharine, this hour-long show spares little along the way, hilariously satirizing the labyrinth of medical faith even as it demonstrates the painful consequences of living one’s life within that labyrinth. Ann Filmer’s direction is fast, sharp, and economical, at one point creating a devastating image simply by moving the right piece of furniture offstage. Dancer Mindy Meyers provides an excellent foil as Lomnicki’s silent dream body.