Famous Door Theatre Company

at Stage Left Theatre


Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Two British plays, minor but not uninteresting, written by two minor but not untalented playwrights two decades apart–20 years in real time, but light years in sensibility. David Halliwell’s 1966 Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs is bitter comedy written in an age of unrest; Richard Harris’s 1984 Stepping Out is warm and cuddly, a group portrait of middle-class complacency. Neither of these plays is particularly good–Little Malcolm is overwritten analysis, Stepping Out a meandering trifle–but both are believable studies of certain character types, and both offer strong performance opportunities that are well realized in their current Chicago productions.

Little Malcolm, produced by the itinerant, non-Equity Famous Door Theatre Company in the Stage Left space, is by far the more interesting of the two. Set in a dingy cold-water flat in England’s north country, it depicts the rise and fall of a sham political party created by four flaky art students. The ringleader of the self-styled Party of Dynamic Erection is one Malcolm Scrawdyke, a long-haired, unwashed chap sporting a Castro cap and a Napoleon complex. Having been expelled from art school for insubordination, Malcolm and his three followers–whose willingness to submit to Malcolm’s leadership is a gauge of their naivete–decide to launch a local revolution by exposing the sexual peccadilloes of the authoritarian art teacher who ordered Scrawdyke’s dismissal. Their plot, involving the theft of one of the teacher’s paintings and the abduction of the teacher himself, is elaborately planned; but when it comes time for action, the pathologically insecure Scrawdyke develops feet of clay.

By the time Scrawdyke’s plan falls flat, Halliwell has given us a stinging satire on the student radicalism of the mid-1960s. The Dynamic Erection movement–whose name had to be changed to Dynamic Insurrection before the Lord Chamberlain, England’s official censor, would allow the original production to go on–is a warped but recognizable microcosm both of the class-based British legal system, which is unapologetically weighted against the powerless, and of Stalinist communism, with Scrawdyke the megalomaniac center of an absurd cult of personality, leading an unfair purge of those he imagines are plotting against him.

As a character study of the impotent, screwed-up Scrawdyke (a role played by John Hurt in the play’s first major production 22 years ago), Little Malcolm suffers from tedious talkiness. Playwright Halliwell, working in a vein that combines John Osborne and Murray Schisgal, has Malcolm address his inadequacies in a series of baldly self-revealing monologues, even though the audience has already recognized the scared little boy behind the ballsy, bearded facade. But the interactions between Scrawdyke and his bogus army are funny and sad, and finally scary. They are made all the more so here by the splendid acting–under Marc Grapey’s vital direction and on Scott Jones’s barrenly realistic set–of the athletic and facially versatile Dan Rivkin as Scrawdyke; Scott Kennedy as the gentle, near-sighted writer who plays Trotsky to Scrawdyke’s Stalin; Scott Jones, whose gruff voice and chunky physique recall the film comic Bob Goldthwait, as a talented student whose academic career is ruined by his flirtation with Dynamic Whatever; and John Allen as Ingham, the quirky and inarticulate Milquetoast who clings to his failed leader because of, not despite, Scrawdyke’s underlying vulnerability.

The role of Ingham, interestingly, was played by the brilliant young Austin Pendleton (now affiliated with Steppenwolf Theatre) when Alan Arkin directed this play in New York in 1966 in a slightly different version called Hail Scrawdyke! That production lasted a scant few performances, and Little Malcolm has seldom been done since. Part of the reason, surely, is the play’s own inadequacies–but far worse plays have received far more performances. I suspect the main reason Little Malcolm is something of a rarity is that when it was written, in the heated atmosphere of 1960s artistic radicalism, those with influence in the theater were repelled or threatened by a play whose theme was that counterculture politics were doomed to failure as long as they served mainly as a way for disturbed personalities to act out their problems.

The characters in Stepping Out don’t want to change the world, they just want to learn a little tap dancing. The nine women and one man who gather weekly in a down-at-the-heels church hall in a north London suburb have their worries, but they’d never think of venting them on anyone else. Harris offers glimpses of his characters’ lives–one shy woman is apparently abused by her husband, another is pregnant but doesn’t want to be, a third is wrought up because her husband, who collects unemployment while working under another name, has been found out by the government–but never shows us if or how their problems work out. Instead, he focuses on the student-teacher relationships and the amateurs’ gawky efforts at improving their limited dance skills and developing some poise and confidence along the way. It all winds up, all too predictably, with the ladies who lurch achieving a smashing success at the local charity show. Tap your troubles away, as they say.

Once the audience has lowered its expectations and realized that Stepping Out’s low-key start isn’t leading much of anywhere, the play has considerable charm–all of it stemming from Harris’s accurate depiction of the group dynamics of a class such as this and the kinds of people who come to it. They’re all here: the picky, nouveau-riche busybody with a bad case of foot-in-mouth disease; the uptight do-gooder trying to do something for herself for a change; the shy, sincere widower, odd man out in an almost all-woman environment; the tweedy and temperamental accompanist; the dame who covers up her insecurities with wisecracks; and the ever-patient teacher, a talented dancer who unconsciously tries to relive her own aspirations through her students.

Under Rondi Reed’s skillful and savvy direction, the characters are delineated clearly but not too obviously; Shannon Cochran as the teacher and Deanna Dunagan as the busybody are particularly delightful (Cochran’s superb solo dance, in semidarkness when she thinks no one’s watching, is a marvelous added attraction). Technically, too, this is first-rate work–the pacing and light cues are right on the money, and an all-important bit of running business involving the playing of a piano (the music’s actually on tape) is perfectly timed. It all runs smooth as clockwork–an invaluable quality in a work as essentially trivial as this is.