Chicago Cooperative Stage

Mortal Risk, the current production at Chicago Cooperative Stage, is a courageous but flawed new work. Its subject–the general glorification of violence against women in our society–is ripe with drama, but also with potential traps. How, for example, can playwrights address the horror of rape without also exploiting it? How can they portray misogyny as a real emotion rather than just a clinical condition, without also reveling in the odium? How can they deal with a concern that is so inherently political without becoming didactic? Perhaps more important, how should they end a story about something as powerful and obsessive as woman-hatred? With resignation? Or with hope, no matter how false?

Ron Mark’s Mortal Risk is a taut little thriller about a rapist-murderer trying to beat the rap by spinning an exaggerated tale about his own abused life. Todd Kemp, played with simmering malice by James Marsters, has appropriated a handful of characters from his past to create the semblance of a very convincing schizophrenia. But because multiple personalities are so rare, Todd is forced to see a second forensic psychiatrist to confirm his story before he goes to trial. That psychiatrist is JoHanna Spector, who threatens to uncover Todd’s scheme.

But JoHanna encounters more than just this one exploitive misogynist. Every male in her life–her mentor, her son, her lover–is suddenly part of a conspiracy to protect, acquit, and ultimately praise “Hot Toddy.” While there are ostensible reasons for their involvement with the killer, Mark’s point is clear: Woman-hatred is the zenith of male bonding. The glue is violent lust.

Director Peter Grahame plays Ira Abrams, a psychiatrist who long ago saved JoHanna from juvenile delinquency. Since he intervened, she has become quite successful as a forensic Joyce Brothers, appearing on TV and writing books. Now in the twilight of his career, Ira sees in Todd a final opportunity for professional stardom. “[Todd’s] humiliated, held up like a freak,” he tells JoHanna, neglecting to add that he has been seeing Todd for the last 12 years and has a paper on him in the works. Ira’s interventions have been nothing short of godlike. Not only has he managed to keep Todd free for years, but he also had Todd’s Aunt Hattie–who has been falsely accused of abusing the orphaned boy–locked up in a mental hospital. Not surprisingly, Hattie is one of Todd’s many adopted personalities. She is distinguished from the other personalities by her gender, and by the fact that, according to Todd, it is she who does the killing.

Todd’s crimes are not for the queasy. The descriptions of how he dismembered women are relentless and graphic. They are also the gruesome topic of a story in Rustler magazine, which features a spread titled “Todd’s Chop Shop.” We later learn the story was written by a free-lancer named Robert, who is JoHanna’s new picture-perfect, sensitive boyfriend. The Rustler story also figures prominently in the masturbatory fantasies of JoHanna’s son Dustin.

When Mark sticks to story telling, his play is riveting, and he scores more political points than when he decides to get on a soapbox. When JoHanna blurts out, “We remember the names of men who kill women. But who remembers the women?” you can practically hear the audience gasp. But then Mark lists the names of those killers and their victims. Similar pointless redundancies happen too often.

Of course, male violence must continue to be decried, no matter how often the point’s been made. It’s particularly interesting when a man tackles the issue, and Mark’s severe portrayals of men make his play all the more frightening. His Todd is far more vicious, and perhaps more authoritative, than any rapist I’ve seen conceived by a woman writer.

Mortal Risk is not a perfect play. There are too many speeches, a couple of loose ends, and the ending is unsatisfactory. Still, this is a very worthy production. Audience and actors are right next to each other in the tiny CCS theater, which heightens the tension. The acting is uniformly solid; Elaine Behr, CCS’s artistic director, is excellent as JoHanna. Mortal Risk will make you think, examine your values, and shake you up enough to leave the theater looking over your shoulder.