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Chicago Dramatists Workshop

Well, they are short: six plays in less than two hours. And no one would want these six to be any longer–tighter maybe, or more focused, less obvious, less cutely quirky or portentously severe. But not longer.

If there’s a flaw common to the scripts in Chicago Dramatists Workshop’s playwrights’ showcase, it’s the playwrights’ assumption that eccentric or exaggerated characters are intrinsically appealing. Not if that’s all they are: the predictability of wacky characters is theater’s worst-kept secret.

Gene Walsh’s Wooff, Wooff, Wooff is the wackiest of the wacky. A young man on a park bench meets a weird old man who insists on sitting in the exact middle of the bench in the middle of the park at midday on the summer solstice. He says he wants to restore his equilibrium. He then calls the young man a dog.

In real life any young man would leave, and quickly; here talk triumphs over plausibility. The young man lingers and, well, the title gives away what happens to him. The ending’s no more subtle than the dialogue.

The dotty ladies in Luzanne Irsheid’s Permanent Address have drunk deep from the well of bittersweetness. These two obsessives deliver separate monologues, sitting near empty mailboxes that presumably symbolize their unmet hopes. One is a life-fearing, borderline mental patient waiting for help from home; the other talks of becoming an astronaut–or of just being “taken,” like Amelia Earhart or Judge Crater. Meanwhile she too waits for the mail. And we wait. Apparently these endearing confessions are supposed to be sufficiently dramatic in themselves. But two slices of bread do not make a sandwich.

Equally eager to please is Penn Goertzel in 3 Poets Who Conquered the World, a good-humored tribute to the megalomania of pompous versifiers. In this fantasyland, a trio of popular but vulgar bards manage to lift themselves from the obscurity of New York’s “Java Cafe” to the UN “Grand Council” (we call it the General Assembly). Along the way they heal a battered world with thudding cliches and minister to victims of a nuclear disaster.

If Goertzel’s point is to mock the irrelevance of poets, it’s a pretty paltry premise, akin to the dog joke in Wooff. Still, Poets spins its silliness with a combustible gusto, and it indulges in some funny wishful thinking about poets’ relevance.

An excess of naturalism marks James Serpento’s On the El Nightimes. A black man on the Howard line tries to strike up a conversation with two white passengers, then starts to sense their fear–or worse, indifference. He replaces small talk with harassment; one guy ignores him, the other works himself into a frightened fit. On the El is an actors’ exercise that, though it intriguingly panders to urban paranoia, comes perilously close to playing to audience prejudices.

The crudest offering is Stan Nevin’s Private School, a play that is intended to excite our egalitarian sympathies. It contrasts two couples, one upwardly mobile, the other arrogant. In a lavish restaurant (it’s so tony the wait staff perform classical ballet and serve the food on antique china), a middle-class couple desperately try to make a good impression on their interrogators, two effete, phony elitists who will decide if the couple’s four-year-old boy is acceptable material for the upper crust.

When the husband uses a dessert spoon for his soup, the kid’s career is doomed. That’s as subtle as these stereotypes get, though Nevin does make the intriguing point that it’s not just the class system that creates social division, it’s “familial love”–to want the best for your kid means other kids must get less. Unfortunately the obvious dialogue ensures that none of this is persuasive.

The saddest show is miserable in ways that playwright Harlan Didrickson may not realize. Full of Life depicts a very one-sided hospital visit between Larry, a man dying of AIDS, and his embittered former lover, Frank. Larry can barely talk, and Frank is so viciously intent on blaming him that he can’t shut up. That turns out to be everybody’s loss.

Admitting that he “cannot take this grief shit,” Frank refuses to offer Larry a shred of sympathy, reviles him for the promiscuity that’s supposedly killing him, and urges him to “get on with your afterlife” and take the “eternity express.” He photographs Larry to show him how little life is left in him–despite the play’s title. Calling Larry and himself “psychotic and maladjusted homosexuals”–a self-hatred he says mirrors the hatred of the “breeders” who despise them–Frank intends to put both Larry and himself out of their misery. And, without asking Larry’s consent, he does so.

As if AIDS weren’t agony enough, here’s another throwback to the homophobe’s rationalization–that homosexuals are self-hating, suicidal, and dead-end. Sure, right, they want to die.

Didrickson may think his vision is authentic, but Full of Life shows none of the common sense, compassion, wit, or wisdom of The Normal Heart or As Is. It just kicks people who’re already down–we need it like we need the plague.

If acting can replace a playwright’s inspiration, this sextet has a fighting chance. The seven performers in Jack McLaughlin-Gray and Robert Teverbaugh’s stagings ride their roles like bucking broncos and make this mixed showcase at least a partial blessing. David J. Thibodeaux plays the verbal terrorist on the el with chilling ease. As the amazed young man in Wooff, Ron Wells provides a strong contrast to Roy McCall’s confident crazy, a spellbinding oldster. The crisp ensemble work in Private School builds into an experience much more compelling than the script alone suggests.

So, ironically, an evening meant to showcase new dramatists works better as a vehicle for promising actors.