Playwrights’ Center

Since late-night shows tend to attract a crowd that’s a little grungy and offbeat, most theater companies tend to make these offerings raunchy and antiestablishment. Swearing and occasional blue jokes are de rigueur. And if you can tie in a little bit of radical social commentary, all the better. However, most late nights I’ve seen lately have also been incomplete and sloppy. Playing to a crowd that may have had a few tee many martoonis shouldn’t make the show’s producers any less responsible for its quality.

Joe’s Handy Guide to Revolution Made E-Z, by Louis H. Anders III and Brendan Baber, now playing at the Playwrights’ Center, is a passably clever idea with no purpose to guide it. Joe (Rob Harless) runs a scummy bar and is so dense that he doesn’t realize that the exterminator (Letitia Hicks) who demands access to the bar’s safe in order to rid it of vermin is actually robbing the joint. Joe becomes aware of her intentions only when Leo the bloodthirsty bouncer (Peter Spector) arrives on the scene and threatens to gun down the robber/exterminator unless she can explain herself. Thinking fast, the exterminator claims that she’s trying to make an anticapitalist statement by disposing of all American money and creating a new state, Freedonia, which will secede from the United States. Purely by accident, Victoria the exterminator is thus thrust into the presidency of the revolting nation.

It’s not exactly the most original idea. I remember the guys at our high school lunch table coming up with a similar one–we planned to invade and annex Wilmette. But it certainly offers some possibilities for social commentary and humor. Unfortunately, Anders and Baber never develop them, avoiding having to deal intelligently with any of the questions the play raises by making the characters hopeless imbeciles. Rather than discuss anything of merit, they shriek, call names, and indulge in tiresome sexual innuendo.

Leo the bouncer turns out to be a masochist who wants the president to beat him so he can relive the orgasmic pleasures of being gang-raped in prison. Sybil the waitress declares her lust for the new president by writing moody bohemian poems, leaving the audience to titter over old-hat dyke jokes. Worst of all, Baber works himself into the plot with a series of self-serving cameos, including a Sky Masterson-style Mafia man named Guido, a Leningrad Cowboys Go America-style folksinger, and a crazed emperor, none of whom have any bearing on the plot–they seem intended only to pad it out or pad the author’s ego. As the saying goes, he doesn’t stop the show, but he sure slows it down.

There are some nice performances in Joe’s Handy Guide and a couple of amusing bits that don’t appear to be lifted from other sources, but nothing particularly memorable or sidesplitting. And there’s something wrong when the program notes are funnier than the play.


Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company

Far better, but still quite uneven, is Mary-Arrchie’s Return of the Bitch . . . The Third Coming . . . Skid Mark’s Nocturnal Excretions, a collection of monologues and improv-based sketches that take us on a nightmarish journey to the heart of the late-night urban landscape, from bowling alleys to the el platform to the twisted mind of Skid Mark (aka Richard Cotovsky).

Mark is a sort of ghetto poet–or thinks he is–and the show gives us his skewed views on the state of the world. Many of the scenes follow not so much the logic of real life but the logic of a dream or the fantasy of someone who’s done one too many drugs in his time. Mark describes the journey as something that almost seems to ooze from the bowels rather than flow from the mind. That description, for better or worse, is apt.

Cotovsky’s monologues have an unsettling Tom Waits-ish feel, and his characterization captures all the anxieties of a man who seems unable to wake up from his nightmares. The material ranges from very funny to dreadful, and often exhibits both ends of the spectrum in the same scene. Particularly funny are one scene in which a crew of Sinatra fans watches his films in awe as Mark lectures them about the absurdity of hero worship, and another scene, “Shawn,” in which rambling monologues and incessant profanity call to mind every horrific party that refuses to die. “Junkies on the El Platform” captures the grim situation of waiting among ghoulish nocturnal misfits for a train while a man with a penis for a nose wails away on the clarinet.

Other moments are less effective. An endless scene about people haunted by the animals they hit on the road, “Roadkill,” is merely yucky and gross. Cheap laughs abound, as in the story of Mark going before court for pissing in his pants in a town called Brown Heaps, Iowa. A very poor imitation of Robert De Niro soiling his trousers is just about as clever as it sounds, and there is also an unfortunate characterization of a Hispanic American named Pancho who seeks to punish his girlfriend by pouring Tabasco sauce on her genitalia. Also annoying are the performers who bust up at their own scenes while the audience watches in stony silence.

Return of the Bitch has going for it an interesting mood and some humorous moments, but it’s too uneven and haphazardly structured. Some cutting would help a great deal, but I suppose these days an uneven show with some swearing and gross-out humor is all most of us expect from late-night theater.

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