Chicago Theatre Company

The appeal of Sara V. Finney’s Mens may at first glance appear dubious: a talented ensemble of women make uproarious fun of the strange behavior of men by mimicking it. And they do it so well. Donning caps and sidling or strutting across the stage in their best approximation of male group behavior, they offer exaggerated versions of the men they have known, wriggling comically out of serious relationships with lines like, “Damn, Sugar! You just too perfect for me!” Some men might find the idea of Mens a little off-putting, but rest assured: this enjoyable Chicago Theatre Company production does not rely entirely on cheap male bashing for its giggles—there’s an equal amount of laughter at women’s behavior, particularly when it comes to the men they’re complaining about.

The play begins with bag lady Beverly Ann (Wandachristine) searching through garbage cans for clues to her husband’s whereabouts. Unable to accept his death, though he died years ago, she’s given up her life to searching the streets of Chicago for the only man she ever loved. “Arthur was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she tells the audience. Then, regarding her rubbish-heap apparel, she adds archly, “I guess from the looks of me he was the worst thing that ever happened to me.”

As she sifts through trash she sifts through memories of childhood, adolescence, young womanhood, and marriage, and these memories are dramatized with the help of five ensemble members (Jean Garrison, Tiffany Hall, Leslie Holland, Greta Oglesby, and Nakita Tebang) who portray Beverly Ann at various stages of her life as well as the men she loved or thought she loved. Beverly Ann recalls her eagerness for romance as a little girl, an unwanted pregnancy, a flirtation with a minister, a dalliance with a married man, and her own married life, until the memories end in a confrontation with her husband’s death. All the material is sketchy—the show runs only 80 minutes—but is more effectively fleshed out when the ensemble gathers onstage to sing gospel music or ballads a cappella, with never a botched note or less than spirited presentation.

In fact this production, directed in a brisk, sprightly manner by Delia Jolly Coy, always works best when the ensemble are together onstage. Whether they’re playing a gaggle of flamboyantly hatted church ladies sighing over an attractive man of God—as good an excuse as any to launch into a ripping rendition of “Amazing Grace”—or a surly knot of youths appraising the young Beverly Ann, they don’t often miss a beat, and their high spirits are so infectious that it’s easy to forgive them when they do.

Less successful are the attempts to deal with Beverly Ann’s grief and denial. The script’s bare bones serve the lighthearted part of the production well but cannot quite convey complete mental breakdown, even as enacted by as competent a performer as Wandachristine. Her transition from housewife and businesswoman to bag lady is abrupt and a trifle forced—it’s the one moment in the play that could benefit from less speed and more development. v