The Center Ring

at the Immediate Theatre


Stage Left Theatre

Negatives has a lot of positives going for it. Dennis O’Dell’s 1981 comedy-drama, here having its Chicago premiere, deals with a serious and unusual theme–the lingering effects of child abuse on a family–and contains a wealth of finely observed details in its portrayal of an Ohio family reunited in New York City. M. Terese Hanson’s staging of the work for her Center Ring production company offers some solid, cohesive, and realistic ensemble acting. In fact, there are times when watching Negatives feels like overhearing the conversation of a tourist family at a crowded downtown restaurant–the interactions are just as natural and spontaneous. Unfortunately, just like the conversation of a tourist family at a crowded downtown restaurant, Negatives is a little dull.

The plot concerns a disagreement between two brothers, Jimmy and Rob, over whether Jimmy’s autobiographical play should be produced. The baby of the family, Jimmy was mistreated as a child by an unbalanced and abusive stepmother following the death of his mother and the departure from home of his grown-up brother and sister. Now Jimmy has dramatized the experience; Rob, for secret reasons beyond the obvious ones, is upset at the idea of this painful history being put onstage before an audience.

While the central conflict is between the two men, the heart of Negatives is with its women: Linda, Rob and Jimmy’s feisty, raunchy, take-charge older sister; Fran, Rob’s compulsive snapshot-shooting wife (whose preoccupation with family photos gives the play its title); and Karen, Jimmy’s yuppie girlfriend. As Jimmy and Rob’s disagreement escalates into a battle of stubborn male egos, the women conspire to confront the men with their own foolishness and to resolve the trouble.

The problem with Negatives is that the interaction between the women is so warm, engaging, and believable that it overshadows what should be foremost in the audience’s mind–the tension between the brothers. As a result, the script’s predictably structured series of revelations (as we learn the deeper reasons for Rob’s angry reaction) are never compelling. Despite the best efforts of actors David Gee (as Jimmy) and Charles Kartali (as Rob), the men come across as two-dimensional figures in a problem drama–the brash, impulsive young man and the stiff, reined-in older fellow. By contrast, the women are quirky, funny, and multidimensional, in the vivid performances of Jaqui Mulvenna as Linda, Rita Titlow as Fran, and Laura Kellogg as Karen. What O’Dell needs to do in reworking this flawed but promising work is to integrate the women far more tightly into the action of the plot, and to develop Jimmy and Rob into characters of richness equal to the women.

Through an interesting coincidence, Richard Nelson’s 1983 play The Return of Pinocchio is receiving its Chicago premiere at the same time as Robert Zemeckis’s brilliant movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Both works are set in the late 1940s; both take cartoon characters from the glory days of Hollywood and put them into “real life” as symbols of lost innocence. Roger Rabbit is concerned with the toll urban progress has taken on our lives; Pinocchio, a darker and more political work, is a parable about the greed ethic of the Reagan years.

Nelson’s brief play takes place in a tiny Italian village after the Allied victory in World War II. This village is the birthplace of Pinocchio, the puppet who became a real boy–a fact advertised on a huge billboard decorated with the toy boy’s famous smiling face. But the billboard is dilapidated and defaced now; and the pretty town we remember from the opening frames of Walt Disney’s movie has become a cesspool of corruption and poverty. Geppetto has been knocked off by black marketeers; Jiminy Cricket is squashed by a bored townsperson before our eyes; theft, abortion, and murder are common occurrences.

Pinocchio, now an all-too-human grown-up USO entertainer (like so many one-movie stars), arrives at his birthplace with pockets full of U.S. dollars and cigarettes and dreams about America, where anyone can become a millionaire. Once easy prey for wicked foxes and donkey-boys, Pinocchio is still a gullible naif, and he is soon easily victimized by various villagers. But underneath his easygoing exterior, he’s also a dark and frightening figure capable, it is implied, of cruel violence.

The script’s peak is a long monologue in which Pinocchio tells a village girl about the American dream: becoming a millionaire. All you need is to be ruthless, dishonest, and hardworking. Pinocchio’s lecture includes tips on working the night shift (so you can sleep when no one’s looking), loan-sharking, cutthroat business practices, secret takeovers, and insurance fraud. This information is delivered with good-natured casualness as Pinocchio sweeps a barroom floor to pay off his debt–except, we notice, he doesn’t really do any work, but spends all his time spinning his vision of success American-style.

Nelson’s play is–that is, it should be–a study in ironic contrast between the surface brightness of Pinocchio’s image and the underlying darkness of his reality. But Dennis McCullough’s staging of the piece–his first directorial effort at Stage Left since taking over as the company’s artistic director–is one-dimensional and unevocative; the pacing is tepid and the comic timing flaccid. Michael Troccoli, a capable actor, delivers his crucial “American dream” monologue in a dully monochromatic style that obscures its biting, escalating humor; the rest of the play reads as nothing more than a lifeless procession of entrances and exits, with only Patti Hannon, as a larcenous Italian mama, beginning to convey the earthiness Nelson wrote into the characters. The Return of Pinocchio is subtitled “An Adult Fable,” but McCullough’s staging (despite Susan Attea’s witty set) lacks the imagination and outlandishness that make a fable what it should be–fabulous.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jerry Haislmaier.