Synergy Theatre Company

Anyone who doubts the wisdom of the old saying that a playwright who directs her own work has a fool for a producer should check out the pair of one-acts, Little Comforts and Troll Fantasy, currently being performed by Synergy Theatre Company. Chicago playwright Lisa Dillman, who wrote both one-acts, also directed Little Comforts, the longer and more ambitious of the two–a challenge she wasn’t quite up to, as this flawed and wildly inconsistent production clearly shows.

Not that Dillman the playwright made things easy for Dillman the director. Little Comforts feels less like a finished work than a confused and contrived crazy quilt of styles, cliches, and half-explored ideas cadged from, among others, Luigi Pirandello, Edward Albee, and Eugene Ionesco. At the center of this digressive mess sits a cartoonish, intensely unlikable couple, Fran and Gus, who not unlike Mommy and Daddy in Albee’s The American Dream and George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? find themselves trapped in a loveless, dysfunctional marriage.

Unfortunately, neither Dillman the director nor Dillman the playwright seems to have figured out what neurotic compulsion keeps Fran and Gus together. “I don’t remember why we didn’t get a divorce,” Fran muses at one point in the play, leaving the question hanging uncomfortably in the air.

Instead of dealing with the play’s basic issues, Dillman employs various jokes and silly absurdist tricks to mask the fact that she doesn’t have control. There’s a tiresome running gag about Gus dropping dead and no one acknowledging the fact. He’s even dragged to a bachelor party by his pal, Rog, who’s shocked when the stripper who hops out of a cake can’t get a rise out of Gus.

As director, Dillman heightens the absurdism by having the cast perform in an arch, presentational style, which makes her play all the more cartoonish but not one jot funnier. In particular Marti Hale as the maid and Gordon Gillespie as Fran’s lover deliver the sort of “Look at me, I’m acting” performances that give community theater a bad name. What Little Comforts desperately needs is not another layer of faux cleverness piled onto Dillman’s already too, too clever script but someone with the authority to tell the playwright what to cut. As it is Little Comforts has two endings, a natural ending about two-thirds of the way through (when the dramatic problem of Gus’s death is resolved) and the current ending, which falls about a half hour after the audience’s patience has been exhausted.

Troll Fantasy, about a sweet couple on a picnic who are alternately possessed by the spirit of an idlike troll, is considerably more successful. For one thing it’s shorter and simpler, if no less nonnaturalistic, than Little Comforts; for another the trio of performers in this play–Dale Young, Marlene Goudreau, and Keith Irace–do a fine job of revealing the comedy. But mostly it’s because director Dennis Hamel (who as Gus delivers the most restrained performance in Little Comforts) clearly understands how to make the work shine. Every beat in the story makes sense, and even Dillman’s absurdist notion of having a human-size troll onstage at all times–picking his nose, breaking wind, or laughing stupidly while the couple enjoy their picnic–works, at least more or less. Though Young as the troll does steal focus a few times too many.

Irace and Goudreau are absolutely charming as the picnicking couple, and in their capable hands Dillman’s lines sparkle. In fact, these two fly through the play’s comic patter with the ease of a seasoned comedy team, revealing various foibles or rattling off childhood reminiscences: “G.I. Joe wasn’t a doll!” “How come he had all those natty little outfits?” “Those were action outfits!” I could have listened to those two for hours.