Skinny White Boy in the Heart of Darkness

Rick Cleveland

at the Goodman Theatre Studio, May 24

Skinny White Boy in the Heart of Darkness is playwright Rick Cleveland’s witty, pathetic, ironic monologue about a journey through a dark domain brought about by a troubled childhood and marriage, early artistic success, and thwarted artistic ambitions. It’s also about ten rewrites of a play, three breakups, therapy with three different therapists, and a journey into Africa to explore the world of rhinos, elephants, and poachers in order to write The Rhino’s Policeman (eventually produced by Northlight Theatre).

Cleveland’s monologue operates dramatically on several levels: a spare, modulated delivery combined with cool, lean words underscores the complexity of his theme, a difficult life passage into an eventual hard-won peace. His deadpan wit keeps the material fresh and fast-paced, providing flourishes of comic color in otherwise bleak territory. He doesn’t so much venture into hard times as allude to them: just as he has his audience standing with him and looking at some gaping wound, he changes the subject or finds a comic element.

He first tells us that in 1988 he was commissioned to write a play for the Goodman Theatre (he was). Saying that this part is all true, he then backtracks to a 1987 camping trip he took in the Sequoia National Forest. (By saying “this part of the story is true,” he leaves open the question of whether other parts might not be.) Everyone on this camping trip was trading horror stories; he waits a beat, then says that they were based on actual events from their own lives.

He moves from image to image, loaded episode to loaded episode. Some of his episodes explode, others seem dangerous but remain inert, providing suspense as the story unfolds. He describes the way pinecones fell from the sequoia like footballs–we can almost hear the gentle thuds they made as they hit the pine-needle carpet of the great forest. He tells his comrades his own horror story, but not much of it–in fact only several sentences, but enough to pique one’s interest–mentioning an alcoholic, homeless father. The sketchy story never turns up again, but it’s an unsettling beginning to the performance, as though this were a character full of secrets.

Once, either in 1987 or 1988, Cleveland’s photo accompanied a Tribune article, appearing next to a photograph of Saul Bellow. This somehow unhinges his wife, but we never really find out why. Later he tells us that while watching an old police show on television in Africa he sees his wife in the background as an extra: when he first met her she was a model and actress, then became a film student and eventually a word processor.

When he speaks of the onset of his wife’s acute depression prior to their separation, he’s almost unsettlingly detached. Yet he vividly describes his own neurotic panic as he removes Sunday Tribunes from newspaper boxes in his neighborhood one snowy Sunday and throws them in a Dumpster, trying illogically to avert a suicide attempt by his wife by getting rid of all the Tribs that carry his photo next to Saul Bellow’s. Af-ter his marriage dissolves, Africa becomes the metaphor for Cleveland’s own dark, unexplored regions, and humor and irony are the vehicles that carry him through the pain of abandonment and obsession.

Together his writing style, imagery, metaphors, humor, and delivery keep the audience rapt. Only on the thorny issue of his relationship with his wife, and with women in general, does he leave out the telling details, reaching instead for jokes and a glib delivery. Even Woody Allen manages to reveal himself, warts and all, when he portrays his relations with women. But Cleveland does reveal some of himself by providing the details of his struggle to shape his play into something workable. It’s an approach closer to Hemingway than to Allen, but it makes for a successful denouement.

Cleveland’s monologue about a marriage unraveling and the disquieting sense of his own ambition resembles many of the real stories we’ve all heard. In the Goodman lobby after the show I heard one person say to another, “Do you think it’s all true?” I assumed they were acquaintances of Cleveland’s, privy to scattered details of his life, perhaps not the whole picture. But a flood of departing people prevented me from hearing the second person’s response. More important than the authenticity of Cleveland’s particular story, however, is why so many monologues produce this reaction in both audiences and critics. If something seems real enough, it seems true–and even if the facts are embellished for dramatic effect, does it really matter? It seems that what draws an audience in is the truth mixed with imagination and color.

Like much of the rest of Skinny White Boy, the ending is full of allusions, some unanswered questions, a sense of anticipation. Ultimately, the thing Cleveland saves is neither his marriage nor a rhino but something small, ancient, vulnerable–and, like a lot of the images here, it’s a metaphor for his own life. But this is a view of life beyond the haze of youthful grandiosity and embellishment. By starting his monologue with an assurance that at least part of his story is true, Cleveland gives us hope for saving ourselves, for providing our own safe haven, perhaps one surprisingly far from what was once home.