Ailerons Productions

at the Beat Kitchen


Big Time Theatre Company

at the Calo Theatre

When I was a freshman in college, a small group of students would stalk the dorm halls on a nightly pilgrimage that was known as “sex patrol.” Men and women would knock on doors asking to use the telephone or borrow some Cheez Whiz, and would then spend the night in a bed full of Ritz cracker crumbs, making promises they knew would never be kept. These encounters seemed funny but at the same time sad, with their underlying desperation and need for love and human companionship.

In Ailerons Productions’ revival of Israel Horovitz’s black comedy It’s Called the Sugar Plum at the Beat Kitchen, a love affair is forged out of the most unlikely situation: a woman finds herself falling in love with the man who accidentally killed her skateboarding fiance. Sometimes this tale of a relationship that develops out of pure loneliness borders on the sick or the absurd, but it also has a sense of grim reality.

The action takes place in the apartment of Wallace Zuckerman, a poor schlep who hauls meat to pay for his education at Northwestern. When we meet him, he’s listening to radio reports and tearing out newspaper clippings about the man he killed with his car. He is fascinated with the deceased, as if this horrible event has somehow given his life meaning.

Joanna Dibble, the fiance of the deceased, enters Wallace’s apartment thirsting for revenge. She attacks him, chasing and kicking him around his apartment, one moment exploding with rage and the next dissolving into tears. Joanna, at first wild and savage, reveals herself to be something of a lost soul, a tortured artist who’s trying to find meaning in her life through art and through the men she meets.

As the situation grows calmer, a twisted attraction arises between the two. They discuss each other’s grief. Joanna expresses her desire to watch Wallace hauling meat and hungrily snarfs down a jar of olives he offers her. He tries to impress her with his poetry and what he knows about the art of meditation, which seems to come more out of the Passover Haggadah than out of the teachings of any swami. The play ends on an ironic, quizzical note reminiscent of the close of Mike Nichols’s film The Graduate, in which the couple, once they have found each other, seem to have no idea how to proceed.

It’s Called the Sugar Plum is not without flaws. Wallace’s character is better drawn than Joanna’s. At times she seems inconsistent and even mocked by the playwright; at her worst she seems the kind of creation a playwright would invent an hour after he’d had a knock-down-drag-out argument with his lover. Sometimes the snappy wisecracking dialogue substitutes punch lines for believability, resembling very cranky, pissed-off Neil Simon. But there’s enough insight and humor here to keep the audience interested until the end.

Under Glenn Fahlstron’s direction, It’s Called the Sugar Plum is a solid, engrossing piece of theater. Todd Jackson gives a great performance as Wallace, creating a character who’s crazed yet sympathetic. Alyssa Jaquelyn shows unparalleled reservoirs of energy and an excellent sense of comic timing as Joanna, though here and there her performance is a little bit overdone and stagy. The two work off each other beautifully and in little over an hour give us a production that’s witty, intelligent, hilarious, and tragic.

I can’t think of a worse situation in which to perform an improv show than the unheated, cavernous Calo Theatre before an audience of ten, including the pianist, the lighting guy, two youngsters, and a humorless critic. But somehow Big Time Theatre’s Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman managed to go on.

Yet another series of scripted sketches and improv games, Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman runs the gamut from the relatively amusing (a John Travolta-esque talk-show host insulting his callers on a late-night radio show) to the mildly amusing (a spoof of 1950s motorcycle B-movies in which every character is named Johnny) to the trite (two characters who can’t come up with any sketches beyond those they steal from Saturday Night Live) to the very trite (a parody of Frankenstein in which Dr. Frankenstein is an old Jewish guy who kvetches “You call dis a castle?”).

The worst of these is the show’s centerpiece, in which the company members show the 1958 sci-fi classic Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman on a TV with the volume off and create new dialogue for the characters. This would have been a cute bit if it hadn’t lasted so long–it must have been 30 minutes at least. The effect of this is kind of like getting stuck at a party where everybody is drunk and watching Son of Svengoolie. And the truth is, the film’s original dialogue is probably a lot funnier than what the members of any comedy troupe could come up with.

The show is not the most professional I’ve ever seen. Performers routinely bust up in the middle of their acts, and they still seem to be working out the kinks in some of their sketches. But there are some saving graces. Bob Wood and Megan McCarthy are talented and charismatic performers, and their efforts make the show enjoyable. A smaller venue and a larger audience might go a long way toward making this show a good one.