Zebra Crossing Theatre

at Chicago Dramatists Workshop

How is it that insipid scripts can become compelling–all right, bearable–on television and yet provide the most dreadful experiences in the theater? Does it have to do with our contrasting expectations of these media–that television, with its limited intellectual claims, will hypnotize us with technical gadgetry, while we hope that the theater, driven as it is by words, might engage us on some higher level? Or is it simply that television programs are over quickly and are broken up by commercials anyway, while a bad play drags on, and unable to change the channel or even leave the room, we’re stuck with our embarrassment for our fellow human beings, standing live before us without the protection that convincing or authentic speech might provide?

Zebra Crossing Theatre’s production of David Williamson’s Emerald City gives its audience plenty of time to grapple with these questions as it lumbers along through a story that is interminable, predictable, and cliche ridden. Williamson is a leading Australian playwright and screenwriter known chiefly for his script for Peter Weir’s film Gallipoli and for cowriting Weir’s The Year of Living Dangerously (you remember–white people screw as brown nation burns). Apparently the 48-year-old Williamson, who started his professional career as an engineer for General Motors in Australia, is mulling over his midlife anxieties, for Emerald City includes gripping moral dilemmas: Is one selling out by moving from a lifetime of writing successful films on the relationships of middle-class “trendies” to developing an eight-part miniseries on Australia’s World War II “coast watchers”? Is it better to let someone else cast a matinee idol in one of your pictures and retain your control of the script or to gain production control of your films and lower your artistic standards?

The vehicle for Williamson’s crisis is screenwriter Colin, who, at the behest of his producer Elaine, has moved his family north from drab Melbourne to the more fast-lane and enchanting Sydney. Elaine hopes that the high-powered life of the “emerald city” will light a fire under the somewhat plodding Colin, who will then come up with a big money-maker for her production company. Within no time Colin is caught up in the fast-paced world of Australian Film Commission cocktail parties, where he’s approached by Mike, a sleazy operator and film industry hanger-on who dreams of producing flicks down under that will sell worldwide, especially in the U.S.

Meanwhile, Colin’s wife Kate, a book editor, yearns for the quiet and boredom of Melbourne while she stews about her inability to get her boss to publish a novel called Black Rage by an aboriginal woman seeking to publicize the plight of the continent’s indigenous people. Needless to say, Mike has a beautiful girlfriend, Helen, and the thought of adultery seeps into the hitherto faithful and generally impenetrable mind of Colin. And of course Kate starts to sell her native author out, and . . .

One could recount the twists and turns of this plot in infinite detail and spoil nothing, as there is not even the vaguest hint of tension or suspense in Williamson’s sorry script. And revealing such lines as “I want power!” and “I took three indigestion tablets, but they still didn’t stop the flame in my belly or the fire in my gut” will only make clear that Williamson is hardly a subtle or edifying writer. Williamson does stop the action periodically to allow the characters to share their innermost thoughts with the audience. But the characters are wooden, and we’re left with a double treat–that we can guess their thoughts and that we don’t care to know them at the same time.

It may stretch the imagination, but the Zebra Crossing production falls flatter than the script. Most of the cast members spend more energy on trying, unsuccessfully, to get their lines to sound suitably Australian than they do on investing them with feeling, believable passion, or wit. As Mike, Rod Sell (who was a perfect Donny in Inn Town Players’ American Buffalo several years back) is suitably smarmy, but he had so much trouble with his drawl that I was waiting for one of the other characters to call him Tex. As Colin, Randy Colborn makes our hero even more thick and self-righteous than his lines would indicate. Lee Roy Rogers as Elaine, Jan Lucas as Kate (a large part), and Mary Mares as Helen breathe a little life into their characters–small comfort in a play that generally takes a nasty view of women and their roles (financial, spousal, and sexual) in the (presumably male) creative process. James Bohnen’s direction keeps everyone moving quickly through this mess, and Bruce Bergner’s spare sets evoke the streamlined modernity of the lives of the fortysomething crowd.

A defender of Williamson’s work might say that I missed the ironies in what is actually a wicked send-up of middlebrow mores among the screenwriting classes. When Mike is through with his production partnership with Colin, he sweet-talks a banker into starting a $100 million film-investment pool, and then sets about moving Kate’s Black Rage to Tennessee, replacing aborigines with African Americans, and getting “strong interest” from Richard Pryor. Some irony. With appropriate camera angles and crosscutting, and with a creepy new-age score, it might work as a subplot in a television series on Hollywood. But in the theater one expects each line to be an offering from a playwright who has polished it free of the interference of studio or network executives. Here the inability of made-for-TV-movie writing to hold up as live drama is painfully apparent.

Williamson winds up providing a critique of Hollywood and television that is even more vapid than the films and programming he seeks to skewer. For irony, beauty, harsh truths, and the artful use of language among scriptwriters, see Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing. The only irony here is that Zebra Crossing felt compelled to go all the way to the Antipodes for this paint-by-number junk when so much on this level is already being generated right here at home.