Chicago Dramatists Workshop

Georgia, an elderly southern lady, flees the forced revelry indoors for a stroll on the deck of the cruise ship S.S. Sinatra and encounters Rennie. He mistakes her for one of the ship’s staff and reveals that he’s one of the escorts hired to provide “company” for “rich old women with more silicone than a microchip factory, dolled up like they were going to the senior prom.” Their introduction is not auspicious, but there’s a tentative rapport between the woman recovering from her son’s untimely death and the young would-be actor playing the gigolo–a rapport based on their shared sorrow and appreciation of Ol’ Blue Eyes. Eventually they dance together, not as gigolo and customer but as friends who find the differences in their ages no barrier. Meanwhile the long-awaited sea breezes hint at a fresh future for both.

Evan Blake’s Strangers in the Night, sweetly directed by Sandra Grand and intelligently acted by Patricia’ Donegan and Ron Wells, is not only the most integrated production of the five included in the Chicago Dramatists Workshop’s sixth annual “Playwrights for the ’90s” showcase, it’s also the only genuinely good-humored one. This program includes plenty of laughs, but generally they have an edge.

In Roger Rueff’s Mary Had, two men are confined by unknown oppressors in what appears to be an oversize shower stall. Denver–a white collar, suburban family man in some unnamed sinister profession that troubles his conscience–clings to the belief that his incarceration is only temporary. Newt, his cell mate, has the weary solipsism of a lifetime inmate and has even invented his own private theology. “You created your own God?” Denver asks incredulously. Newt shrugs, “It’s not like you need a license or anything.” To pass the time, they discuss their names, jobs, the economy, music (Newt sings nursery songs, always leaving off the last word–a habit that irks Denver), the attractions of suicide, and the meaning of life and death. From time to time they hear ominous noises outside the locked door and sight guards overhead, one of whom Newt taunts just once too often. Eventually their conversation comes to an end, but we’re never given any clue about the questions troubling Denver and us: who holds these men prisoner, and what do they want? Rueff makes vague allusions to the erosion of civil rights in a complacent society, even suggesting that Denver’s tolerance of others’ opinions may be responsible for his arrest. But the enemy remains so generic as to be unidentifiable, and Rueff never specifies a context for this existential conflict. We’re left with a coupla paranoid guys sittin’ around talking–waiting for Big Brother Godot, so to speak. Director John Swanbeck and actors Jason Wells and David Barr make this short play entertaining, but ultimately they can’t make it satisfying.

Of the five scripts, Mark Guarino’s Anchors of Love is the most conceptually ambitious: it’s written from the point of view of a septuagenarian who prefers his carefully edited memories to the sometimes unpleasant realities of his too-human daughter and unhappy grandson. “We hope that our stories will follow some path,” he says. “But they’re crooked here, and they veer off there.” Guarino’s occasionally overliterary dialogue (assisted by several silent memory scenes) adequately conveys the psychological tricks of a self-deceptive mind, but the play is irritatingly ambivalent about how responsible the old man is for his isolation. Is his self-censorship the inevitable result of age and human frailty, or has he deliberately withdrawn from the people who need him? Neither Andrea Urice’s direction nor William Graham Cole’s singularly unfocused performance as the grandfather is of help in deciding this family’s underlying dynamic.

The family dynamic in Mary Bonett’s Sub Rosa is right on the surface. A fashionably dressed daughter and mother sit facing us, the daughter insinuating and the mother denying a shameful family secret–a secret we guess long before they reveal it to us. Strangely flat performances from the usually excellent Amy E. Warren as the tearful daughter and Susan Reilly as the cold mother, under Grand’s also uncharacteristically facile direction, do little to communicate the subtleties of the revelation.

Flat performances seem deliberate in Johannes Marlena’s sketchily written vignette Luna for Short, in which a romantic young man armed only with a mouthful of cliches and a shop-worn flower courts a shy young woman on a park bench–she hesitates but of course finally accepts him. Though the lady claims to be a cynical Chicago television newswriter, the quaint costumes and language–indeed, the whole atmosphere of this production–suggest pre-World-War-II Europe, Pirandello perhaps. The porcelain-doll charm of Keith Kupferer and Warren as the lovers, under Urice’s direction, makes the lovers engaging but artificial.

In Mary Had, Newt remarks that he’d once been a fortune-teller, but business turned bad because he’d had no good fortune to report. Guarino’s and Bonett’s estranged families, Rueff’s totalitarian society, and Marlena’s fairy-tale nostalgia would seem to bear out that pessimistic appraisal. But like a small coal among the ashes, Blake’s Strangers in the Night glows with the possibility of reconciliation. Maybe the 90s won’t be so bad after all.