Stage Two Theatre Company

We place distinct boundaries around reality, and consider anything beyond those boundaries fantastic, psychotic, or cartoonish.

More Fun Than Bowling is, at one time or another, all three. Steven Dietz, the author of this peculiar comedy, is intent on violating the boundaries of reality every chance he gets.

The protagonist, Jake Tomlinson, makes his entrance from beneath the soil of a freshly turned grave. He believes he will be assassinated soon, “and when that happens I’m gonna have to live there in that grave for a longer time than I care to think about,” he explains to the audience. “So, I thought I’d try to get the flavor of it so maybe I’d have a better outlook on gettin’ killed.” Violating the boundaries of reality still further, Jake reaches through the dirt to pull out a lawn chair and the copy of Reader’s Digest he’s been perusing during his underground experiment. “Brand-new,” he says of the magazine as he sits down to read it. “Never even been in the bathroom.”

Jake’s monologues occasionally verge on the psychotic. He is hopelessly paranoid, convinced he’s marked for death. When his daughter startles him by pedaling up on her bicycle, he hurls his Reader’s Digest at her and screams “Die, sucker!”

Jake’s stories tend toward verbal cartoons. He used to practice six hours a day on a cardboard keyboard, he says, and finally enrolled in the Wyoming Conservatory of Music. But his dreams of a career as a pianist were dashed when he reached for a foul ball off the bat of Louie Twinkler. The ball broke his hand, making piano playing impossible, but Jake quickly discovered that his newly gnarled hand fit a bowling ball perfectly, so he became a maestro of the lanes instead.

Even the play’s structure violates the boundaries of reality. The play begins with Jake in the cemetery, at the graves of his second and third wives; through flashbacks, the audience sees him at various stages of his life with the two women. So far, so good. Yet during all these scenes, an apparent assassin named Mr. Dyson hides in the bushes, watching the flashbacks so he can step in to complete the job he has been sent to do.

Toying with reality in this way certainly has its pleasures, as other playwrights have discovered. Keith Reddin, for example, and his mentor John Guare both include absurd elements in some of their plays; and some of Sam Shepard’s early plays are as wild and unpredictable as fever dreams. But Dietz seems more interested in violating boundaries than in actually going anywhere. More Fun Than Bowling is certainly an exuberant exercise in imagination, but despite its delightful surprises it seems unfinished, as though the playwright didn’t have quite enough energy left over to bring the play to a satisfying conclusion.

Part of the problem, no doubt, is the uneven production being offered by the Stage Two Theatre Company in Waukegan. Bryan Simon, the founder of Stage Two and the director of this production, deserves a lot of credit just for tackling this unusual comedy. Dietz, who lives in Seattle, is not a well-known playwright (he wrote the book for Ten November, staged a few years ago at the Wisdom Bridge Theatre); his name certainly wouldn’t attract an audience. And the loopy quality of More Fun Than Bowling is sure to annoy theatergoers who prefer a more linear narrative.

But Simon staged the play anyway, and he’s staged parts of it very well indeed, despite obvious limitations of money and space. He gets a terrific performance from Richard French, a rotund Dom DeLuise look-alike who plays Mr. Dyson as a self-important sissy with a gun. And Mark Kettner maneuvers easily between the two aspects of Jake–the undaunted loser at love who still pines for his first wife, who left him, and the carefree goofball to whom bowling is almost as important as life itself. In one of his best scenes, Kettner grows more agitated by the moment as Jake gives his second wife a crash course in bowling. The ball, he informs her, is not a ball at all–it is death. “When you swing your arm back like this you are holding power in your hand,” he explains with intense sincerity. “And when you release that ball you are releasing a power that will change the way everything has been so carefully arranged. Shatter it. Time and time again. Death, Lois.”

Although the two wives–Marjorie A. Engesser as Loretta and Mary Margaret May as Lois–give agreeable, believable performances, they are much less forceful than Kettner; their tentative deliveries rob the characters of personality and detail. And Renee Lynn Joseph, a high school student who portrays Jake’s daughter Molly, has an unnerving habit of sneaking glances at audience members as she performs.

Waukegan is located near Burlington, Wisconsin, the home of the Burlington Liars Club. Once a year members get together and tell preposterous stories, hoping to be named the world’s biggest liar.

More Fun Than Bowling has a lot in common with such tall tales, which are based on a simple premise–the bigger a lie gets, the more fun it is. A good lie doesn’t always mean a good story, as Dietz’s play demonstrates; but sometimes the two do go together nicely. Lois, Jake’s second wife, sums it up well: “It’s a fine line between a storyteller and a liar,” she tells the audience. “I try to believe the storyteller and ignore the liar for fear they’ll both go away.”