Eclipse Theatre Company

The Dogs, the brainchild of casting director Jane Alderman, are a pack of nine talented actors who work together extraordinarily well, giving and taking focus onstage with the sort of egoless generosity found only in the best, most unified, most mature of Chicago’s myriad ensembles–Lookingglass, Ed, Lois Kaz. So it’s disheartening to see them stumbling where other ensembles, most notably Steppenwolf, have stumbled before them–at the script-selection stage.

With their gift for creating dozens of vivid characters in the span of two hours, the Dogs deserve better than Stephen Serpas’s collection of overwritten, unsurprising, unreal urban fantasies. Collected under the title Dogtown, his ten tales (and prologue) leave no city-life cliche unevoked. We meet the heartless drug dealer, the nerdy bag boy, the bullying store manager, the sexually ravenous housewife, the lovable, goofy bartender, and various colorful, goofy blue-collar types in the seedy but homey neighborhood drinking establishment with a quaint name, Rich’s First One Today.

Does Serpas ever leave his apartment? Only someone totally unfamiliar with contemporary city life could create this crowd of phony people, led by the stock character to end all stock characters, the eccentric but wise wanderer, mapmaker, and product spokesman Granville, whose Pepperidge Farm demeanor (bow tie, pressed shirt, clipped New England accent) make him a less crabby, considerably less interesting cousin of the Stage Manager in Our Town and of all the crusty old men pushing oatmeal, upscale cookies, and “old-fashioned” lemonade on the tube.

In his stories Serpas (who also wrote Xenogenesis, for which the Dogs won two Jeffs last year, for ensemble work and onstage sound effects) is clearly aiming for the kind of magical realism playwright Neal Bell (with whom Serpas studied at NYU) achieves in fits and starts in his wildly uneven, overwritten work. But the best Serpas can achieve is a sort of flimsy dime-store whimsy that would be out of place in comic books.

For example, in one tale a drug-dealing ice cream vendor who’s in a coma at the local hospital must find the person who shot him in 24 hours or he’ll die and not go to heaven (and neither will his guardian angel, who sounds strikingly like Ed Wynn). Lucky for them, the vendor’s soul separates from his body for the duration of his search. In another tale we learn that world-famous artist Bartle Von Bundle is a fake; all his work is being created by a talented talking rat named Fenton.

But it isn’t the stories themselves that I have trouble with. It’s the fact that, having created an urban setting–a hospital, a sewer, a garage-turned-art-gallery–and filled it with strange characters, Serpas is content to tell a sketchy story that’s almost devoid of interesting details or complications. In the hands of Art Spiegelman the adventures of a talking artist rat could fill a graphic novel. In the hands of comic writer Mark Nutter, the same character could sing and dance his way through a marvelous one-act. Yet Serpas finds barely ten minutes’ worth of material in this character and never progresses beyond his simpleminded premise.

Most baffling is that these potentially wild tales are told without a hint of irony or sarcasm (and only the most fleeting and ineffectual attempts at humor) by both Serpas and the Dogs. The cliches he works with are so threadbare they’re fit only as jumping-off points for satire, yet for some reason Serpas et al believe they can tell the story of a beleaguered bag-boy-turned-afternoon-Casanova straight. (This a good 15 years after Bob Greene did the bag-boy thing to death.) Which is a shame, because some of Dogtown is reminiscent of the free-floating surreal parodies Firesign Theatre performed in its heyday–without, of course, the humor.

But the greatest shame of all is the skillful way Serpas’s pap is translated to the stage, with beaucoup directorial wit and the sort of full-throttle commitment from the performers that’s sadly lacking from so much of Chicago theater today. But being fully committed to bad material is like being faithful to a cheating spouse: it’s a foolish waste of time and a vexation to the spirit.