Tops or Bottoms and Persistence of Vision

Canamac Productions, at Chicago Dramatists

One of the hallmarks of summer in Chicago is the appearance of brand-new theater companies that take over spaces used by established companies the rest of the year. Many of these new groups are formed by recent college graduates eager to work in front of paying audiences, and their choice of material frequently reflects the usual youthful angst–shitty jobs, failed love affairs, shifting loyalties among friends.

Canamac Productions, making its local stage debut with two one-acts by Winnetka playwright and humorist Todd Logan, differs from these tyros in two significant ways. Logan’s characters are middle-aged or nearly middle-aged people dealing with aging, loss, and the dying embers of romantic passion–he’s 49–and the production features some of the most assured regulars from the local talent pool, under the unobtrusive and respectful direction of former Strawdog artistic director Richard Shavzin.

In the longer one-act that kicks off the evening, Tops or Bottoms, one gets the sense that the actors are working overtime–albeit with undeniable charm and empathy–to sell some of the hoarier passages. Scott Jaeck and Judy Blue play Jack and Robin, empty nesters in their late 40s awaiting the results of a pregnancy test from Robin’s doctor. Why she doesn’t use a home pregnancy kit or why her doctor couldn’t give her the results while she was still in the office is never adequately explained, which makes the entire scenario more than a tad artificial and distancing from the start.

The title refers to a version of Truth or Dare the two concocted during their more passionate days, but it also refers to power shifts in the relationship. The couple can’t even recall when they last had sex (which makes the pregnancy scare even more puzzling). Robin reminds Jack that he used to keep a calendar on which he’d mark off the days they had sex. “I’m a lawyer,” he says defensively. “I was making a case.” As the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that both Robin and Jack have become painfully self-conscious about their no-longer-nubile physiques. He complains about his man breasts, while she’s horrified at the thought of anyone seeing her thighs. “You’re in the master’s division–over 45,” he tells her. “The standards are lower.” This is well-worn territory, though Logan adds just enough gunpowder to the cliches to keep the lines popping.

What makes the play work–at least until the final maudlin revelation–is the lived-in quality of the performances. Jaeck was terrific as a similarly self-deprecating decent yuppie in Donald Margulies’s Dinner With Friends at the Goodman last winter. But the smaller stage and closer seating of the Chicago Dramatists space allow him to add more nuance to his portrait of a confused, conflicted, if loving husband.

Blue, another Goodman vet, also delivers a well-calibrated performance, though Logan doesn’t give her as many levels to play on. Robin is a smart woman who apparently has put all her energy into child rearing and has never told her husband that she has long resented his inability to fill the void left when their twin daughters left home for college. She’s a throwback–and not a very believable one. Yet Blue finds a note of knowing, brittle charm and manages to sell the shinola Logan passes off as Robin’s motives for shutting out her husband. To Logan’s credit, his attempt, however awkward, to address the earthier aspects of the aging process is far more admirable than Margulies’s pat (though undeniably clever) take on the same subject in Dinner With Friends.

The shorter one-act in the second half of the program, Persistence of Vision, isn’t as crammed with Big Moments as Tops or Bottoms, and it’s more successful. A frantically lonely 37-year-old editor of an optometry trade magazine awaiting the results of a test that will determine whether he’s had a heart attack aggressively flirts with the prim resident who’s filling out his chart. (In one groan-worthy moment he actually asks her to take off her glasses so he can see her eyes.) Eventually we learn that he’s a widower who recently attempted suicide, and the resident is a shrink sent to assess his “suicidal ideation.” Here too the circumstances feel a bit contrived–do hospitals really try to fool patients by sending in shrinks disguised as cardiologists?–but F. David Roth and Cheryl Lynn Golemo bring quiet dignity to their roles.

“I think you have a deep, well-founded sadness,” Golemo’s doctor tells Roth’s editor. “I don’t think we have a treatment for that.” The piece’s underlying themes of loss and uncertainty mesh nicely with those in the first play–both feature characters wrestling with dilemmas they never imagined they would face at their ages–giving the evening a satisfying emotional arc.

Logan has an abundance of wry wit, and in this production he’s been blessed in having generous and smart artists working to bring his vision to life. Now he needs to develop more believable scenarios and more complicated motivations for his characters.