Life in the trees, SummerNITE Northern Illinois Theatre Ensemble, at Bailiwick Arts Center. Like George Bailey, some contemporary theater is just born old. This pleases theater conservatives, who like to think it’s still 1965 and who prefer revivals anyway, but it chases away younger audiences, who associate theater with the musty smell of old ideas. That odor permeates Catherine Butterfield’s 1993 collection of interrelated one-acts about life in the city that never sleeps.
Judging by Sara Allen Stone’s contemporary costume design, these plays are supposed to be set in the 90s, but it could just as easily be the 80s or the 70s or even the late 60s. Butterfield’s New York is the never-never New York of old ABC sitcoms and faux-Neil Simon plays, a timeless place where eccentrics are always sweet and neurotics always just a little confused, and everyone is white, even black people.
Butterfield does have a gift for Simon-esque comic dialogue and for characters loopy enough to be funny without being offensive or challenging to the sensibilities of a well-fed suburban audience. But two hours of this pabulum turns these virtues into vices–particularly given David Zak’s competent but uninspired direction and the awful to merely OK cast. And do we really need another bittersweet play about two lonely misfits who almost connect? About a nice guy who keeps losing out in the mating game to his sexy asshole of a roommate? About two people gabbing in a restaurant?