Steppenwolf Theatre Company


Lifeline Theatre

In a year-end review of the theater scene in PerformInk, WBEZ critic Andrew Patner compared Steppenwolf’s new space to a mausoleum. Then the company received an incredible amount of bad press following the cancellation of Frank Galati’s production of As You Like It. Several weeks ago New York Times reporter Bruce Weber gleefully revealed in his Friday theater column that Steppenwolf had had a run-in with the Dramatists Guild, which condemned what it described as the “substandard contract” the company had signed with The Song of Jacob Zulu playwright Tug Yourgrau to bring the show to Broadway. Even playwright Arthur Kopit jumped into the fray, telling Weber that though the company was set to produce his Road to Nirvana he “wouldn’t dream of allowing Steppenwolf to do another play.” Frankly I don’t think that would be Steppenwolf’s loss.

Begun in 1988 as a tongue-in-cheek parody of David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow, Road to Nirvana (originally titled Bone-the-Fish) hasn’t transcended its roots as a Mamet satire. The sections of the play that work best are those that mimic Mamet’s trademark dialogue: “I know this guy! He says a thing, you can fuckin’ COUNT on it! You can bet your fuckin’ life on it! Jerry does not fuck you over!”

Even the setup for the story–two sleazy producers team up to sell a shoddy film deal to a big star with clout–has been lifted right out of Mamet’s play, though Kopit, in a rare moment of inspiration, shows us the producers not in the exciting first minutes of their success, as Mamet does, but ten years or so down the road, when drugs, booze, bad deals, petty betrayals, and busted marriages have taken their toll.

Unfortunately, Kopit is considerably less successful when he wanders out of Mamet’s shadow and tries to say something meaningful about the film industry. His main point, that some people will do anything for a film deal–slit their wrists, eat a spoonful of shit, slice off one of their balls–gets old very fast, and most of the play is spent trying to make this rather adolescent observation seem deeper than it is. As a critique of the decadent amorality of Hollywood, Speed-the-Plow is much stronger and funnier, though neither play can hold a candle to Robert Altman’s The Player.

The problem is that Kopit has structured his play as if he were raising the stakes–from blood to excrement to testicles–with every turn of his plot. But the first gross-out in the play, in which an otherwise likable and sensible character willingly slits his wrists, is so strong that everything that follows feels like a dull echo, even the offstage castration that marks the play’s underwhelming climax.

Sadly, director Gary Sinise’s production only emphasizes what’s most tiresome about Kopit’s play. This is especially true of Richard Woodbury’s trite sound design (Would someone please tell him that using “Hooray for Hollywood” ironically has been done to death?) and of John Arnone’s big, expensive, vulgar set. First Arnone presents us with what looks like a giant shower curtain decorated with caricatures so badly rendered–Lauren Bacall looks like Jackie Kennedy, Bob Hope looks like one of Charlie Chan’s sons–that only Mickey Mouse looks like himself. Then Arnone opens the curtain to reveal, sigh, a pastel-colored bungalow with a view of the old Hollywood sign on the hill.

The performances are similarly uninspired. Rick Snyder’s likable chump resembles the likable chump he played several years ago in The Common Pursuit. Francis Guinan’s mildly manic, going-to-seed producer reminds one more than a little of the paunchy, manic, gone-to-seed characters Tony Curtis has played for the last 20 years in films such as The Last Tycoon. Even Moira Harris, in the most delicious role in the play, the decadent bitch goddess rock star Nirvana, seems exhausted and empty. Unable to decide whether to play Nirvana as a Madonna knockoff (as Julie Brown does in her Medusa video) or as a full-blown character, Harris transforms her into a mildly neurotic wannabe with a predilection for leather outfits a tad too tight for her figure.

If you want to see how far Steppenwolf has strayed from the path of theatrical righteousness, you need only check out Lifeline Theatre’s extremely low budget original production The Road to Graceland. Made up of five autobiographical stories–written and performed by the cast and woven together into a loosely structured one-act by James Sie–The Road to Graceland has one big advantage over Road to Nirvana: sincerity. It’s clear throughout this wildly uneven production that the actors are being as honest in their stories as they dare to be.

Sometimes this can be a liability, as when Meighan Gerachis admits her disappointment at discovering that her real mother lived in poverty in Appalachia and that her relatives in the old country were little more than peasants. More often, however, the tang of truth makes these stories more compelling than fiction, as with Colleen Kane’s exquisitely moving story about being passed over not once but twice in high school to play Peter Pan, a role she felt born to play.

In bringing this show to the stage, director Ralph Flores has wisely kept the performances simple and to the point. While all the actors participate in one another’s tales, no one steals the focus from the storyteller. And Rebecca Hamlin’s simple but striking set design never overshadows the performers, even at the end of Kane’s story, when Hamlin uses yards and yards of parachute silk to signify the clouds Kane dreams of flying through as Peter Pan.

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