Splinter Group Studio

A subtle yet pervasive feeling of malaise runs through all six of Kathleen Ross’s short plays, collectively titled Rational Malaise. At first it isn’t noticeable, but then a general feeling of uneasiness wells up, the kind of sadness that arises when things aren’t as they should be but aren’t about to change. Perhaps we don’t notice because the characters and their messed-up romances seem so familiar. Most of us have played these scenes out in one form or another, and like Ross’s characters we’re often so caught up in the idea of romance that we can’t see the mess we’re creating.

This lurking malaise is the best part of Ross’s plays. Second best is that they’re funny in an easy, familiar way. But this is the first time Ross, a poetry and fiction writer, has written for the stage, and all of her plays are short, as if she were afraid to jump into a full-length drama. And because they’re so short, they often sell their ideas short. Ross creates a general impression, but she doesn’t take her stories to their natural conclusion.

“Lip Bomb,” the one piece that goes beyond malaise, needs this sense of conclusion the most. Actress Deborah Goldstein plays a young woman on the brink–or perhaps in the middle–of a nervous breakdown. She smokes nonstop, hates herself, wants to die. In a shaking, rough voice she tells us about her day, how she tried to find an open church because she longed to be in a large dark place. In church, she rationalizes, she could cry for no reason at all; people would invent reasons when they saw her and wouldn’t think she was crazy.

Goldstein gets us to care about this woman–we want to know what happens to her. She can’t get into the church and finally catches a cab home. She tries to sleep, but can’t. A thunderstorm rages outside, and the alarm system on a new Cadillac outside her window repeats in an electronic voice, “Warning! Vehicle perimeter violated! Warning! I’ve been tampered with!” This electronic voice hints at reasons for her depression, but there’s no conclusion to this piece. Her night continues just as gray as her day, and when the lights come down we feel somehow cheated.

In most of her other pieces Ross sets up a good dramatic conflict but then jumps out of its way. “Volition” and “Season of Knives,” two pieces about sour romantic relationships, both end in an unsatisfyingly quick way. In “Volition” a secret love affair seems about to fizzle, then suddenly it ends because the man’s other lover shows up. In “Season of Knives” a woman is left to clean up the kitchen after her egotistical lover has prepared a complicated gourmet meal. He relaxes with a beer, driving her crazy with his nit-picky directions on how to wash the dishes. The piece ends with her sharpening his knives, and we understand that she’s going to use them on him. The possible outcomes in these situations are infinite, but the ones she hints at are unlikely and wouldn’t even make good scenes.

Ross’s two other pieces about relationship disorders, “Auto Stopping” and “The Singing Didactic,” also feel incomplete. In both she works with the dramatically strong idea of a woman who finds herself sexually involved with the wrong man. Ross presents the situations well and brings out their humor, but never goes beyond the simple presentation of the dramatic conflict.

Of all the plays “Event Horizon” feels the most complete, perhaps simply because things happen. A man at a party is mourning the loss of a loved one to AIDS and sets up a game in which they all ponder what they would do with only a year to live. Meanwhile a woman loses the stone out of her engagement ring while mashing avocados. Someone finds it in the sink. A geeky girl leaves the party with her suave Russian lover. In a roundabout way their actions provide one perspective on the meaning of life, death, and love; their answers when they play the game provide another. The final moment subtly illustrates how friendship adds meaning to life, giving the piece a nice sense of closure.

Ross has a refreshingly light touch. She’s not didactic, nor does she feed her ideas too easily to her audience. Some of the performances are great, others are adequate, which leads me to the conclusion that Rational Malaise is another of those Chicago productions that hint at a lot of artistic potential but don’t deliver the goods. Each of these short pieces seems like it could be a scene in a larger, more satisfying play. On their own, however, they only tease the audience.