Canus Lunis Balloonis

A Red Orchid Theatre

By Jack Helbig

Chicago loves to think of itself as a tough, swaggering, hog-killing kind of town. The kind of place where everyone’s on the make, everything’s up for grabs, and we don’t see nobody nobody sent. So it makes sense that, when theater began to take hold here, it was David Mamet’s tough, swaggering guy plays and Steppenwolf Theatre’s kick-ass productions, awash in blood, sweat, and testosterone (even the women in the troupe exuded testosterone, or played characters who suffered because they didn’t) that got everybody’s attention.

A lot of great plays and memorable productions have come out of this testosteronic tradition. But a lot of weak scripts and just plain awful shows have been given a pass over the years just because their strong Chicago-style dialogue or the cast’s deep-dish acting fooled critics and audiences into thinking they were watching something substantial. Which brings us to A Red Orchid Theatre’s Canus Lunis Balloonis, an all-male show that leans heavily on guy-play traditions to give the first act the appearance of depth and to try to cover up the enormously flawed second act.

Christian Stolte’s play concerns a group of regular guys who get together every week or so for poker at Max’s house on the northwest side. They’ve been buds since way back, and like good buds in any guy play, they cheat one another in petty ways. Michael and maybe Jake have been sleeping with Max’s wife. Max, on the other hand, had a thing going with his neighbor’s wife. And they’re all willing to do whatever it takes to make a buck. Jake is a bookie with connections in the entertainment business. Michael wants his band to put out a music video. Colin is a gambler who placed a winning bet with Jake when Jake was too drunk to know what he was doing. Rounding out the group is a geeky neighborhood idiot savant, Stewie, who’s at once socially retarded and, in flashes, the wisest of the bunch.

So, even though Max and Colin and Michael and Jake are careening into their middle 30s, they’re still playing out patterns set in adolescence, when they all went to this or that all-boy Catholic high school: also a hallmark of guy plays, which fall in with the way our culture encourages men to remain boys.

Stolte knows this territory very well. He’s got a great ear for white lower-middle-class dialogue, and he has great fun weaving it together in witty lines like “Oh, man, where do I start, much less begin?” “He is genuinely cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs,” and “I was shooting up the Kennedy like, uh, Lee Harvey Oswald.” Like all good denizens of guy plays, the characters spend a lot of time talking at each other, because they’re all born monologuists. Inevitably this leads to confrontation, because the guys have to be all over one another–fists clenched, pistols out–before they’ll listen to what the other guy is saying.

This in-born guy tendency leads to the climax of the first act, which I won’t reveal except to say that it’s a moment as vivid and violent as anything in Pulp Fiction (the cinematic equivalent of a guy play). Unfortunately, it’s also an action so serious that it completely deflates the play’s humor, rendering Stolte’s carefully woven soap-opera plot utterly irrelevant. At this point it’s hard to keep worrying about how Max doesn’t know Michael is humping his wife, but Colin knows and is willing to use the information to make Michael help him get what he needs from Jake. That’s why masters of this kind of tragicomic play, like Mamet, keep their violence offstage.

The second act begins as a grim version of the first, with the same knuckleheads, who no longer seem so charming, fighting over how they’re going to dispose of the body and who’s going to take the rap. Stolte must have realized that this was a beastly way to end a play that begins in such high spirits, so he tacks on a 30-minute dream sequence that denies the comic naturalism of the first half of the play yet doesn’t really wrap things up.

Utterly lacking the first act’s vividness and power, this dream sequence is even boring at times–something the first act never is. And it’s boring despite fine performances from all concerned, but especially Mike Shannon and Guy Van Swearingen, who prove themselves equally home in the well-done realism of the first act and in the half-baked surrealism of the second.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo by Daniel Guidara.