Chicago Dramatist’s Workshop

Marek’s Monkey is one of those near soap operas in which every character suffers from, grapples with, and ultimately solves–or at least acknowledges–some major problem in her or his life.

Sarah Hughes can’t adjust to the fact that she is getting older and that her husband, once a highly respected doctor, is dead. Her daughter, Margot, a grown woman in her 30s, is still rebelling against her upper-class upbringing by choosing a less honorable career than medicine–she’s a modeling agent–and by becoming sexually involved with “working men” who are two or three octaves lower on the social scale than her father was. Pilk, an 18-year-old homeless product of the working class, has run away from her sexually abusive stepfather, and lives illegally in the laundry room of the Gold Coast apartment building where the play is set. Tad Marek has a score of problems befitting the main character of a serious drama. A Polish immigrant, the 36-year-old Marek was an honored physician before he ran afoul of Polish authorities and was forced to give up his practice and eventually to leave his homeland. In America his plans to resume his practice are frustrated when he discovers that he cannot practice medicine unless he gets a residency at an American hospital, and then that he cannot get a residency in his chosen subspecialty, hematology, but only in one he never respected, anesthesiology. “I will not pass gas,” he complains with uncharacteristic indelicacy and bitterness. So he toils as a janitor and handyman in the apartment building.

Of course the lives of these four characters become entangled. Margot lusts after Marek, until she discovers in midseduction that he is not a true “working man.” He may have the trim, fit, muscular body of a janitor, but he has a physician’s brain–just like her father. This proves too much of a turnoff for Margot, and she turns her attentions to Carlos the doorman. Sarah too has plans for Marek. From the moment she discovers he is a doctor, she tries to maneuver him into a residency at her husband’s old hospital.

However, the relationship that forms the real heart of this play–and saves it from being merely a two-act soap opera–is the one between Pilk and Marek. From the moment Marek finds her skulking around the building, there is a special chemistry between the two that transcends the petty problem-solving plot lines that threaten to drag the story down. Who cares, really, whether Marek becomes a hematologist or an anesthesiologist? But one can’t help but care about Pilk and Marek, especially after Marek, discovering that Pilk lives in the laundry room, invites her to live on the couch in his tiny garden apartment.

It helps that James Serpento (Marek) and Catherine O’Connor (Pilk) work so well together. Serpento’s convincing Polish accent and set of eastern European gestures perfectly complement O’Connor’s energy and intense likability. Yet she gives a somewhat less than convincing imitation of someone from the lower end of the working class, and her characterization lacks the hard edge that one would expect in a young woman abused by her stepfather.

The fault, however, is not O’Connor’s alone. Susan Lieberman’s script is most unsteady when dealing with the working class, which for her seems to consist only of doormen, janitors, and maids. She does a much better job describing life among the residents of the Gold Coast–doctors and lawyers and successful businessmen–and when she frames success and failure in terms of one’s profession (Marek’s life is tragic because he is not a doctor; Pilk makes a big sacrifice when she agrees to the humiliation of wearing a maid’s uniform.) The two characters in the play from the upper class–Kristie Berger as Margot and Marjie Rynearson as Sarah–are well drawn and immensely believable, even if their problems are a bit petty.

However, it is Lieberman’s delicate handling of Marek and Pilk’s complex relationship that really showcases her skill as a playwright–in a way that her less than delicate handling of the other relationships in the story does not. She never skirts the charged emotions bound to arise whenever an attractive but psychologically wounded younger woman lives with a kindly, lonely older man. She handles the inevitable sexual tension between Pilk and Marek with the same self-assurance that she has in describing the growing love between them.

If only the other relationships in the story had come off as smoothly, Marek’s Monkey would have been an unqualified success. As it is, Marek’s Monkey is well-crafted and worth seeing, but hardly worth going out of your way to see.