Illegitimate Players

at Victory Gardens Studio Theater

I left the theater amused and cheerful after seeing the January 9 opening of Pandora Skulnk Won’t Come Out of the House. This absurdist comedy about a panicky paranoid afraid to leave her home–with good reason, given the world of random violence the play evokes–is lightly funny. Not great, but occasionally very clever and always well played as it spoofs urban anxiety.

Then I got home and turned on the television news, and reality intruded. In a word: Palatine.

Linking the Illegitimate Players’ new play and the murder of the staff and owners of the Brown’s Chicken restaurant in that northwest suburb is as unavoidable as it is unfortunate. Pandora Skulnk addresses the same emotions the Palatine slaughter provokes–feelings of helplessness and despair at the overwhelming crime that makes living in America seem not only scary but senseless. In the light of such events, a play that deals with fear of living needs to be convincingly cathartic if it wants to offer a sense of victory, as this one does. Pandora Skulnk is merely cute–and so inadequate to the issues it begs.

The titular heroine, whose last name evokes the sound you make when you accidentally hit your head against a shelf, is a stooped, schlumpy spinster possessed by a dread of going outside. It’s called agoraphobia–but it’s also common sense. Outside Pandora’s apartment door lurks a venal, vocal gang of rapists and robbers. In fact when an antiviolence pollster barges her way in to quiz our hapless heroine, the pollster’s mowed down in a drive-by shooting the media subsequently ballyhoos as the Skulnk Doorstep Massacre.

Traumatized by the murder, Pandora retreats inside her box of a home with only her goldfish, Madame Bovary, for company. But trying to lock trouble out only invites it in. One after another, would-be authority figures parade through Pandora’s house. First is a neurotic quack of a psychiatrist who tries to treat her with self-help books (How to Confront Your Inner Aggressor Without Setting Your Own Bed on Fire) and ambient-noise tapes. He’s followed by a doubting deacon who loses his faith and acquires a drinking habit; a sleazy tabloid-TV reporter known for a special on devil-worshiping cheerleaders called Pom-Pom Pagans; and finally Pandora’s slutty mother–forced out of her own home by a radon leak–who caresses her daughter with such caring phrases as “You’re just a pool-table assault waiting to happen.”

Though Keith Cooper and Maureen Morley’s sick-joke script has its share of funny wisecracks and off-the-wall one-liners, it never digs beneath the glib surface. Too often it relies on pop-culture cliches–Pandora’s abusive mother, for instance, starts out as a unique individual but is trivialized into just one more “Mommie Dearest” stereotype with a wire-hangers routine. More bothersome is the comedy’s abrupt conclusion: Pandora’s decision to leave home seems prompted by no reason stronger than that it’s time for the play to end.

Regular Illegitimates Keith Cooper as the TV reporter, Paul Stroili as the shrink, Doug Armstrong as the deacon, and Maureen FitzPatrick as the mother bring to the play their usual deft understatement under Curt Columbus’s direction, shrugging off silliness that other actors would be tempted to hammer home. Sue Cargill, a familiar face on the stand-up circuit making her Illegitimate debut, has a special clunky radiance as Pandora, registering the effects of a “battered life” in a cringing demeanor while letting us see the character’s intelligence; she also has some fine bits of physical comedy, as when Pandora must force her body out of the house against her own will.

But having moved beyond their tried-and-true parodies of literary lions (Steinbeck in Of Grapes and Nuts, Dickens in A Christmas Twist, Tennessee Williams in The Glass Mendacity), the Illegitimates haven’t yet grasped something more substantial. There’s a play in Pandora Skulnk waiting to be let out–a reality to be taken into account that both proves the show’s point and exposes its inadequacies. At this transitional point in their development, the Illegitimates need to go back to their books or forward to life.

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