Itinerant Theater Guild

Very near the southwest corner of Damen and Division is a bar called the Rainbo Club. You can park right outside for free because someone has knocked the tops off the parking meters. On a Saturday night the street is deserted and it doesn’t look too safe. And at first glance the Rainbo Club makes you wonder whether you’re safer inside or on the street. But once inside, the atmosphere is comforting. It’s a bar from another era, beat up but stubbornly intact, and behind the bar is a tiny, semicircular stage with a bulky, pilastered proscenium and canopy. It’s the sort of stage that could only be used for one thing–a strip show.

Well, I didn’t come to see any strip show, and after thinking it over, I figured sure, this is the perfect place to stage four short stories by Nelson Algren. Where else but this grimy has-been neighborhood? The architecture, the Rainbo’s neon sign, everything about the setting seems right. Only the life is missing: looking around the bar I realize that Nelson Algren’s Chicago is a thing of the past, no longer the neon wilderness. The people gathered for this show are too well dressed and nourished, too clean and unscarred to come from the city of big shoulders. No, these are people from the city of padded shoulders.

So if Neon Wilderness was to try to summon up Algren’s postwar Chicago on that tiny stage, it would be a struggle. And it’s struggle enough to turn Algren’s prose into theater. Neon Wilderness loses on both counts.

Three of the four short stories in Neon Wilderness are staged as monologues. The first, “So Help Me,” is told by a sleazy grifter named Homer, who explains to an unseen lawyer how he came to know the “Jew kid.” Homer’s story wanders from New Orleans to nowhere Texas, riding boxcars, in search of work. But it’s the “Jew kid” who works and Homer who exploits him. It’s a long story, and a boring piece of theater. You sense right off that the “Jew kid” is eventually going to get it, and by the end of the story you really don’t relish Homer’s weasely ability to blame the kid’s murder on someone else. One of the key lines I had scribbled down was, “Didn’t nobody never mean to hurt the Jew, so help me.” But a Jewish friend, who came with me, felt the key line was, “I dozed off, while he babbled on.” No offense to Jack Kandel (as Homer), who’s a convincing enough actor, but it’s going to take a lot of charisma and editing to make this monologue work.

The second monologue is much better. “Is Your Name Joe?” is shorter and funnier, but there’s more to it than that. A woman (played by Loren Crawford) sips a beer while she tells some invisible guy her life story. The woman has survived, and I mean survived, two marriages to men named Joe. Now she’s leery of men and has a bad self-image. “I must be the gal that guys forget about all right.” She sounds high-strung, like she’s just about to cry. And oddly, I’m drawn to her. Because she’s not a victim. She’s someone who fought hard and lost. And I’m wondering, will she open up to this new man? And is he just another Joe? Now this story, unlike the earlier monologue, has a theme that persists. It makes sense today. It’s not just some dated yarn about boxcars and boilermakers, and Crawford’s characterization helps to carry it the distance.

After two visually static monologues and two intermissions, you’re ready for some action, right? Well, “The Captain Has Bad Dreams” is all on tape. It’s a radio show. There’s nothing to look at onstage except an antique radio cabinet. Meanwhile, the voice of John Walsh (as the police captain) is mangling an Irish accent into what eventually constitutes an insult to all Gaelic people. An endless line of lowlifes, who have been hauled into the station on one charge or another, appears before the Captain. They plead their cases: “We were just playing cards and the man jumped out a window.” Or, “I was talking to a woman on the street under the impression that she was my wife.” Then it’s the Captain’s turn to say something funny, cynical, and/or hard-boiled. Occasionally punctuating this marathon of repartee is the voice of a narrator who explains that “in sleep such men haunted the Captain, with their pale, lascivious faces.” Yet somehow the Captain envied them and their neon wilderness, those “cat burglars from Brooklyn and live wires from nowhere.” You get the idea. And I’m thinking, what the hell am I doing in a bar, listening to a tape recorder and staring at an ashtray?

Slam dunking the evening is the least effective of the monologues, “How the Devil Came Down Division Street.” This is a ghost story told by a woman (Lorell Wyatt) who heard it from a man named Roman, who had a reputation as the biggest drunk on Division Street. So since what we have here is a story twice removed from the event itself, I’ll skip over all the prosaic, undramatic details, hashed out by a woman seated at a kitchen table, and spill the provocative beans. “Does the devil live in a double shot? Is he the one who knocks, with blood on his knuckles, on winter nights in the gaslit passages of our dreams?”

OK, it’s dated, it’s corny, but I have to admit it has a certain charm to it. However, after two and a half hours on a bar stool, it sounds like Burma Shave poetry and I’m fit to kick the top off a parking meter. Three monologues and a tape recording! Is this theater? Stephan Mazurek’s adaptation and direction is a matter of actors telling stories. I don’t need that. I can read. But from now on, if I want to read about lowlifes, I’ll read Genet or Henry Miller, and not this phony ashcan school of journalistic realism. Neon Wilderness has not only failed to bring Algren’s Chicago to life, but may have ruined it for me altogether.