WYSIWYG Theatre Company

at Victory Gardens Studio

The last time I saw a show of this caliber was when I saw Charley’s Aunt at West Albany High School in Oregon, in which one of the students, after stuttering for five minutes, turned to the audience and said, “I’m sorry, I forgot my lines.” WYSIWYG’s ensemble never sank that low, but then they didn’t deliver as many laughs either.

Jeff Helgeson’s Glass Houses, which concerns a dysfunctional family filled with what he must think are a bunch of zany characters, resembles a bad pilot for a television sitcom. The heroine, Barb, is the most normal–an ex-cheerleader and homecoming queen who is living with her family after her divorce. She and her husband, Ken, apparently separated because he couldn’t deal with either her meddling family or her willingness to do whatever they wanted. The main plot revolves around the parents’ scheme to keep their grandchild and not let him see his father (unbeknownst to Barb). A secondary plot revolves around Barb’s cocaine-dealer brother, who has a stash in his parents’ house.

The action, such as it is, involves Ken’s discovery of his child’s whereabouts, a confrontation with the parents, and the discovery of the cocaine. For a little added excitement, Helgeson has the parents put out an APB for Ken’s arrest, but that never gets resolved. Nothing does.

Helgeson’s point is not the action. It’s the workings of a dysfunctional family, and the heroine’s escape from it. But Helgeson also wanted this to be a comedy, so instead of being simply dysfunctional, the family is “wacky.” And so, for example, the father coughs, scratches, and blusters his way through life, thinking he controls the family, though his wife, a prissy housewife, really wears the pants.

The premise is banal enough, but Helgeson adds to the inanity with pointless exposition. Characters are immediately identified with an explanation of who they are–so that no one gets confused. A woman’s name is mentioned in passing, and the mother instantly clarifies the reference (to her own daughter) with, “Well, my brother’s widow . . . ” Barb remarks on the phone that her son would enjoy being with Max, and then quickly explains that Max is “a lovable golden retriever”–to the dog’s owner. Even her brother makes his entrance by remarking, “Yup, it’s your baby brother in all his glory.”

Director Joan Gatz adds to the witlessness by encouraging her actors to slop about the tiny space with broad, absurd movements. Her staging is also awkward. Particularly annoying is the amount of activity that goes on behind the couch, which is only about a foot and a half away from the wall; the actors can’t help looking ridiculous as they strain to get through the narrow space.

Gatz is also hindered by her designers, whose work is some of the most amateurish I’ve seen on a Chicago stage. The costumer’s idea of design appears to be matching the colors of the clothing and the set pieces. The punk’s leather and metal may seem appropriate, but the effect is ruined by the big green rug the actor wears as a wig. The set consists of badly painted flats, including a painted window that the actors constantly look out of. Poorly taped sound effects complete the design.

The actors can’t be blamed for the stilted language they must use (Barb actually has to say “liquored up” and “sounds glorious”). Yet they rarely rise above it. Mara Martin, with her understated line readings, does the best work as the quietly domineering mother. The rest of the cast build their characters with large, manic gestures, apparently not trusting the words to do it for them. Guy Massey, for example, comes off more like a retarded heroine addict than a rebellious delinquent. Still, he has some of the show’s only truly funny lines, and he delivers them with an earnest honesty.