Talisman Theatre

at Cafe Voltaire

With Mendacity, Chicago playwright Stan Nevin gives us quick sketches of modern relationships characterized by dissatisfaction and deceit. It may sound like a sour evening’s theater, but Nevin’s writing is slick and enjoyable. His voices are authentic enough to interest anyone who has ever lived in a suburb, broken a promise, planned a wedding, been seduced, or been abandoned. If you haven’t done any of these things, Mendacity can give you a good idea of the troubles in store.

The first and best of the four one-acts, Six Neighbors Talk About Lies, outlines a juicy little suburban scandal through six brief monologues. Three couples frozen in portraits of wedded bliss come alive one by one to confess fears, sins, and fantasies. These range from the innocuous (a wife admits that her husband is a disappointing substitute for a white knight) to the venomously bored (a man caught in bed with his neighbor’s wife finds the whole experience tedious). Director Kerry B. Riffle lets the talented ensemble members do their jobs with a minimum of fuss. The monologues sing with the passion of being thwarted, pursued, or abandoned. Disgruntled couples in the suburbs isn’t a fresh theme–but the piece is honest enough to be engaging and short enough that it doesn’t exhaust its own good will with a lot of suburb-bashing.

In fact in What About Art? there’s a suburban victory. Resembling less a play than a Second City sketch, it involves a party of neighbors (played with the sort of broadness that often characterizes improv exercises) who lead a small uprising against the insufferable artist in their midst. The artist spits out facile, blind judgments about his friends until they’re compelled to bind and gag him. It’s not a viewpoint often found in theater; it’s refreshing and funny to see the keen eye of the artist zeroing in on his own absurdities instead of those around him.

A Box of Candy seems to be the skeleton of a full-length play. The actors flesh it out as much as possible, but the plot begs to be explained more fully. A mysterious woman cruelly takes leave of her three three-way relationships–one with a straight couple, one with a lesbian couple, and one with an apparently gay couple. Although the characters are believable, thanks in part to some splendid acting, the situation is a little strained. In almost every case one partner would never be caught with the other if it weren’t for their shared infatuation with the same spellbinding woman. What makes this woman so special is never explained adequately. And the box of candy she leaves with each couple is the source of some heavy-handed imagery–the lesbians like the chocolate-covered cherries, while one of the presumably gay men admits to loathing the fruity ones as well as any with nuts.

Likewise, Prop Jokes is entertaining enough, but could do with a little fleshing out, even as a one-act. While it’s not hard to imagine a man pretending to strangle himself with his fiancee’s panties (as a joke for his friends), it is hard to believe that the fiancee would be surprised enough by it to cancel the wedding.

Bald spots make Mendacity far from a perfect collection of one-acts, but the writing and the acting both offer some genuine moments that make the evening worthwhile.