Theater by Design

at the Firehouse

Hope in reality is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs the torments of man.–Nietzsche

Don’t believe the title. Selections From the Book of Hope is an unintentional journey to despair. The “hope” it holds would earn Nietzsche’s gratitude; if anything, Chicago playwright Keith Huff’s four short plays offer the perfect antidote to aspiration. As cruel as they are cerebral, as detached from their characters as they are devoid of compassion, these “selections” suggest that if there’s a Book of Hope, it’s a tome the devil sent to hasten our annihilation. (Speaking of hell, beware–there’s no air-conditioning.)

It’s not as if Huff’s bitter tales completely lack wit and eloquence. The playwright has a flair for quirky comedy, and he can spin out moments of beguiling magic realism. But for the most part these works aren’t half as lovable or deep as he thinks they are; and their pretensions undermine any offbeat whimsicality.

Selections, a world premiere from a new company, Theater by Design, has the form of an arcane ritual. As the audience waits in the lobby, robed penitents begin a candlelit procession down some stairs that ends with Ralph Flores sitting while acolytes wrap him in billowing white curtains. As the audience patiently stands and watches, he delivers “St. Pookie” in a solemn deadpan.

Setting the tone for the rest of the evening, this monologue relates the unedifying tale of Pookie, an abused soul who endures a series of mystical experiences. These, it becomes evident, are Pookie’s way of denying the pain around him–his father’s heart attack, the burns he received from a bolt of lightning, his parents’ fights, his doses of Ritalin, his attempted rape of a schoolgirl, the homosexual advances a Franciscan monk has made to him. Convinced that there is no justice on earth, Pookie’s mission is to expose the hypocrisy around him by literally slapping people silly.

If Pookie is a saint, it’s because he’s too obtuse to admit how much he suffers; his hope-filled “journey toward God” is fueled by delusion and mired in obsession. Infuriatingly, Huff depicts Pookie with a detached cynicism that pretends to be hip. It’s not really Pookie who speaks here–it’s his malicious author/torturer.

In the fable of “Leon and Joey” (by this point the audience has reached the auditorium), Leon replaces Pookie as the sacrificial fool-of-God. Leon is a simple soul whose retardation is seen as semisaintly; his special friend is a wood nymph who offers him mystical advice. Looking after Leon is his suicidal evil twin, Joey, a selfish cur who denies the existence of the good wood nymph; instead he delights in gross-out stories (like the one about fetuses who eat each other in the womb).

Though desperate to kill himself, Joey can’t abandon Leon. He meets Gina, a woman who has been raped and then disfigured with quicklime but still believes in people (another monster of hope). Joey convinces himself that Gina will take care of Leon and kills himself. But with the aid of the wood nymph’s spells, Leon keeps going back in time to try to prevent Joey’s suicide by tricking him into falling in love with Gina. Finally Leon himself gets killed during one of Joey’s suicide attempts–but by means of a “Tibetan soul meld” Gina makes Leon’s soul enter Joey’s body. Instantly Leon’s goodness makes Joey see the loveliness behind Gina’s scars.

Like “St. Pookie,” “Leon and Joey” founders on the desire to be both hip and sentimental–it ends up neither. Along with a brain-dead plot, it suffers from a precious and uneven mix of insult humor and would-be whimsy. Magic realism requires a delicate intensity that this mean-spirited episode never approaches.

“The Secret Sorrows of the Prematurely Bald,” the silliest skit, depicts a hair-loss support session. Guided by an unctuous couselor (who insolently sports a healthy crop of hair), three hairless folk console each other with pompous and irrelevant speechifying. Their unfunny disquisitions cover the French Revolution, the contrast between French and American welfare systems (delivered in French), Chinese songs from the Han dynasty, and the old wives’ tale that baldness is the result of children not eating their bread crusts. After the participants sing an idiotic pep song (“Bald people aren’t bad people / And bad people aren’t good people / And good people are bald people”), they all die in an earthquake.

Most depressing is “To Autumn” (or “How Clara Got Over ‘de Mopes”), a series of brief, mean episodes that feature a quarreling husband and wife who take the bad advice of their closest friends. Each pretends to commit suicide, in separate ploys intended to rekindle the ardor of the spouse. Predictably, the foolish scheme backfires: because each believes the other dead, they end up separated for years–until, shortly before their deaths, they have a tearful reconciliation.

It’s not enough that “To Autumn” offers an idea of hope that only a twisted Pollyanna would believe; what’s insufferable is that the characters aren’t even allowed enough dignity to realize that they’ve thrown their lives away. Huff prefers to pretend they’re still in love after so many wasted years. But the sitcom scenes he’s shown us suggest no such depth of caring: the ending lacks even a shred of conviction.

The best work in Thomas Carroll’s staging comes from Doris Difarnecio, who brings grace to the wood nymph and a semblance of tragedy to the wronged wife, Clara. Difarnecio also performs an elegantly surreal dance to Walking, one of several new-age-style compositions by Mark Konewko (who performs his score live on synthesizer and accordion).

The rest of the cast–Michael Hill, Monica O’Meara, Flores, and, in a cameo, the director–offer competent but thin performances. Given the hopeless material, it’s probably absurd to expect more.

Hell, hope deserves a better break than this.