Briar Street Theatre

A friend who follows theater recently told me he thought there were entirely too many new small non-Equity theaters sprouting up in Chicago. He suggested that someone start licensing them to weed out the bad and make it difficult for anyone who didn’t have money or the right connections to open more. But I can think of no stronger argument for small, poor non-Equity theaters than Mixed Emotions, the well-funded, well-crafted, but essentially heartless and manipulative romantic comedy currently playing at the Briar Street Theatre.

This Equity production, which was created by a team of theater veterans, would have no trouble being licensed in my friend’s theater utopia. After all, the production team had money and clout enough to attract a Name, the once-famous I’ve Got a Secret panelist Betsy Palmer, and to win the presence at their opening of both Roy Leonard and Norman Mark. But the play itself is so bland and predictable that it’s hardly worth the time spent watching it.

Part of the problem is that writer Richard Baer can find nothing particularly new or interesting to say, though his premise–a 65-year-old widower woos the 61-year-old widowed wife of his best friend–is rich in possibilities, and his main characters belong to the liveliest, healthiest, most independent, and loneliest generation of senior citizens this country has ever seen.

You’d think all Baer would have to do to come up with a new angle on this December romance is describe life as it’s lived today. Instead, he gives us a pair of characters who carry their age so lightly that if they didn’t come right out and tell us how old they are we’d think they were in their mid-50s. Your average ten minutes of Golden Girls has more to say about contemporary life for senior citizens than two acts of Mixed Emotions. Baer further shortchanges his drama by making his lead characters so comfortably well-off that they seem impervious to misfortune. In fact, it’s hard to see what Christine has to gain from marrying Herman besides a chance to end the play.

I suspect all of these problems are symptoms of a deeper problem in Baer’s writing: there’s nothing quirky or original about it. As the program points out, he has had a long and productive career in television, having written more than 200 teleplays for The Life of Riley, Leave It to Beaver, Petticoat Junction, F Troop, and Barney Miller, among others. But after a lifetime of writing for television (or maybe because of it) Baer has failed to develop his own voice. His play, which at its best sounds like watered-down Neil Simon, is written in the nonstyle of an overly rewritten TV Movie of the Week. Sure the structure is sound, and all of the scenes seem the right length. But when it was over, I found myself hungry for an evening at the theater.

It wouldn’t be fair to lay all of the blame for the flaws in this production at Baer’s feet. Palmer, though sweet and perky, brings no depth to her character. Christine says she’s still mourning her husband’s death, but we never really believe her. Nor do we really believe her when she says she’s been won over by Herman’s charm and persistence. Palmer has made her into the sort of smooth-faced, fairly sensible, mildly emotional character who seems compelling on the tube–which never fails to make very emotional people look like fools–but who seems too even-keeled and trouble-free on the stage to make us care about her fate.

Tom Troupe, as the ever-kvetching Herman, has a better time of it, mostly because he heightens the crabbier aspects of his part. Unfortunately, the qualities that make Herman an interesting character–his violent mood swings, his definite opinions about things, his insisting that Christine marry him–make Christine seem even more colorless and unworthy of him.

I hope my friend sees Mixed Emotions. Maybe he’d be persuaded that it would be better to encourage the creation of lots of energetic, inspired theater companies and to discourage those who no longer have anything to say.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest.