Cactus Theatre

at Chicago Dramatists Workshop

It’s an intriguing idea, putting together two one-acts–one by a writer who’s been called the American Chekhov and another by someone branded the Soviet Mamet. I would compare Liudmila Petrushevskaya to a wilder writer, such as Sam Shepard. But why would anyone in his right mind put Chekhov and Mamet or Shepard on the same bill? I have rarely seen two more mismatched playwrights and plays than Petrushevskaya’s Cinzano, which resounds with savage passion, and Horton Foote’s Spring Dance, which has a quiet desperation.

Spring Dance is a sweet, simple, and sometimes funny portrait of several characters at the annual spring dance of the state mental institution in Austin, Texas, circa 1928. Foote attempts to show how relationships develop between long-term patients, and how one’s illness can affect the other’s. The play is also a study of mental illness. Characters seem highly functional when they’re introduced, but their sanity is slowly revealed to be a facade that quickly fades when they’re under any stress.

Foote’s writing is delicate and lyrical. His craftsmanship is evident in the tightness of his scenes–every line is there for a reason, and each character is clearly delineated and developed. But despite its poignancy, Spring Dance rings false. In striving to show the strength and humanity of his characters, Foote disregards the severity of their afflictions. Having worked at a mental institution, I am keenly aware of the thin line between sickness and health. But if at the end of his play Foote’s patients are so enmeshed in their delusions that functioning must be difficult, how could they be so very well at the start? Foote’s premise is dramatically pleasing, but it’s spurious.

Petrushevskaya’s Cinzano is of a completely different world. Her characters are rough and playful–well immersed in society and its harshness. Where Foote’s characters spend their energy trying to submerge their inner turmoil, Petrushevskaya’s spew out their troubles with considerable gusto. They live to drink (Cinzano’s their choice), and they drink to unleash their pent-up emotions–though they insist they drink only because they like to drink.

Cinzano is set in the early 1970s in an apartment at the edge of Moscow, but it could just as easily be a tenement in Brooklyn or a hovel in New Mexico. The apartment is nearly devoid of furniture; who it belongs to is never clear. The three men who wind up there first revel with abandon, then sink deeper and deeper into a drunken stupor. During that slow slide we learn the unhappy details of their lives and what has driven them to worship alcohol.

Both of these one-acts are more character studies than action-oriented plays. Both deal with disturbed people trying to find a way to hide their distress. But the styles are so different that it’s hard to watch them in the same evening. Five minutes of Cinzano make you feel you were asleep for an hour during Spring Dance. Cactus Theatre is at ease with both styles. Though Cinzano has a dazzling vitality that Spring Dance lacks, there are stunning performances in each.

In Spring Dance William Green is riveting as Dave Dushon, a patient who hasn’t spoken a word for eight years. His body language is as highly developed as verbal speech, and he deftly manipulates Dushon’s lapses in and out of lucidity. With a simple, subtle change of attitude, Kenneth Cavett manages to swing from being the most normal inmate to being the most disturbed. William Vear makes the moment in which he tries to put his shoes on the most fascinating of the entire play.

All three actors in Cinzano are stunningly truthful in their portrayal of the culture of drinking, endowing it with a gleefully aggressive passion comparable to that shown in the film Withnail & I. Bryan Burke and Paul Swetland are particularly engrossing as they weave and bob through an evening of overdose. They are physically fearless as they climb all over each other, swing bottles and sticks about, fix and break already beat-up furniture, and spit wine at each other.

There are brilliant moments and haunting images in both plays. But they are both eventually crippled by self-indulgence–the clearest evidence being their joint running time of almost three hours. Cinzano’s excesses are easier to take, since they involve kissing, screaming, pounding, singing, and dancing–including one of the most perverse renditions of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” I could imagine, with sheets being used like matador’s capes, while Burke pounds on an old train seat and Swetland growls the tune. All of which at least keeps you awake. But in Spring Dance, where the action is minimal at best, the excesses become deadly, and pauses turn into dreary silences as a character explores his or her private pain.