New Crime Productions

at Edge of the Lookingglass

Though far (far) from orderly, Methusalem’s pretty neat. Written by “Ivan Goll,” a pseudonymous Marxist Jew from Alsace, and first performed in Berlin during the revolutionary chaos of the Weimar era, the play’s an incendiary vaudeville: a comic attack–at once scattershot and analytically precise–on the indestructible bourgeoisie, as symbolized by one Methusalem, a shoe magnate.

Goll (aka Isaac Lang) slaps styles and subjects against each other with an exuberant, violent, vulgar impunity. Building on Jarry and Dada, anticipating Ionesco and Brecht, he sends his audience bouncing across a string of absurd, recklessly digressive vignettes detailing Methusalem’s dirty progress through the class wars. This is kitchen-sink drama in the sense that it hands us everything but.

Still, the digressions are often the best parts. And very much to the point, in their way. A scene in which the magnate’s daughter Ida trysts with her lover–a radical student just aching to betray his proletarian values–becomes a hilarious dissection not only of treacherous intellectuals but of Freudian theory and male cock-think in general when the student’s ego, id, and superego show up to coach him along.

Methusalem has a robot who tells vicious ethnic jokes, and a mistress who needs an airplane to cheer her up. His son Felix is “the modern mathematical man,” with circuitry stuck in his neck–the ultimate variation on the car phone–to keep him close to the market. There’s a party where the Methusalems and their hideous friends make and break bourgeois dynasties. Some strangers have a wedding that turns into a brawl. And a bear foments revolution among the beasts of the world, promising to overturn the reign of man.

It’s all so wild, funny, sly, sharp, and peculiarly hip. And director John Cusack’s New Crime production runs right alongside it: alienating like crazy with loud live music, over-the-top acting, cartooned settings, and fascinating grotesque masks. The show’s riddled–or pockmarked, rather–with hard-edged, stunning images, gleefully ugly performances.

So why did I find it such a pain to sit through?

Maybe the heat got to me, but I don’t think so: a theater critic sits in a lot of sweaty rooms over the course of a Chicago summer. (And then, too, the humidity actually enhanced the mise-en-scene–making the actors’ whiteface run, so that Methusalem in particular looked as if he were going to melt like the Wicked Witch of the West.) Maybe I was put off by the notion of a guy like Cusack–an Evanston boy with a Hollywood future–styling himself a New Criminal, as if the name might make us mistake him for Genet. But again I don’t think so: there was enough conviction and talent evident onstage to excuse Cusack’s subversive posturing.

The problem was more basic than that. In their enthusiasm for the breakneck surreality of his script, in their excitement over his vaudeville turns and anarchic provocations, Cusack and company evidently forgot all about Goll’s precision. Part of the wonder of Methusalem is the absolute ideological clarity it maintains amid the dancing bears and talking ids. Goll may have been a vicious satirist, but he had a poet’s sense of structure, and this play shreds capitalism–its bosses and its fellow travelers, its inward sickness and its endless tenacity, its hard violence and its sticky-sweet softness–in very careful ways.

Though admirably vulgar and nasty, Cusack’s headlong approach lacks Goll’s care. There’s no modulation from scene to scene; and very little clear delineation of what, exactly, is going on within and among scenes. So little, in fact, that basic information gets lost or garbled: I couldn’t tell, for instance, whether the revolution of the beasts was meant to be seen as Methusalem’s dream or as a real event that takes place while Methusalem’s sleeping–an important distinction, since a real animal revolution would turn out to be quite a plot complication. Cusack’s production takes a brilliantly rich play and treats it as if it were nothing but a long, loud scream from beginning to end.

Which is no reason not to see it. As screams go this, is a pretty strong one, with lots of little Tarzan trills and lion roars and baby walls mixed in. Jeremy Piven’s a sprawling Ubu of a Methusalem, while Marilyn Dodds-Franks plays Amalia, his wife, as a peculiarly right mix of Blanche DuBois, benzedrine, and robotics. Catherine Hardwick’s set is textbook expressionism–but Jef Bek and Xander Berkeley goose it up with music and masks, respectively.

Cusack’s direction is lively to say the least, with flashes of lightning now and then. He could have fucked the play up completely and I still would’ve forgiven him if only for the sake of his brilliant final image: at once a departure from Goll’s original and a savage, exquisite distillation of it. This show may not have Goll’s rigor, but it respects his passion–and ultimately, if a little sloppily, gets the message right.

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