Great Chicago Playwrights Exposition

at the Body Politic

In the second round of short works from “Play Expo,” there’s a big gap between those plays written from the inside out–where what the characters do and say seems to come from the persons they really are–and those from the outside in, where people come to life only through the medium of the writer–story, setting, or writer’s notebook. Sympathy or satire, soul or surface, doesn’t matter, as long as you choose your route. But when writers create characters from the outside in, don’t expect an audience to care about them; the payoff will have to come from the shrewdness of the plot or from sheer originality of style.

Of these four offerings, the better work doesn’t try to pass off mere case histories as stories of genuine human interest. In Claudia Allen’s They Even Got the Rienzi, well-felt details color in a character who could easily have been generic. Edgar Meyer’s old man in a changing neighborhood (New Town, 1980) comes to life in part from the outside in through sheer specificity. Hobbling with a walker, Mr. Ponzecki tells us how, after festering in a hospital where he lost a lung (the result of years of sandblasting), he discovers that his home, the Rienzi Hotel, has been torn down and his lifetime friends scattered by urban renewal and gentrification. Ponzecki finds himself relocated to a Belmont Avenue fleabag where he can’t sleep for the rumble of the el and the obscenities at all hours.

Allen balances these outer particulars with Ponzecki’s heartbreaking refusal to accuse and his palpable confusion. One moment he’s longing for the old Century Theater, before it became a shopping center; the next he’s reliving his embarrassment over how long it takes him to get onto a bus while other commuters mutter behind him. Ponzecki’s somewhat predictable regrets (for Riverview, streetcars, stockyards) are too rooted in real flesh and blood (and in Meyer’s characterization of this grand old memory monger) to be anything but moving. There’s a wonderful, undiminished person behind these heartfelt images.

In Roof Top Piper, which has an impact equal to Rienzi, populist poet David Hernandez goes to Chicago’s streets to sing the city’s unknown songs. He’s modeled them on the music of saxophonist Ken Serrito, who died at 27 of cancer: “When the city is high heeling through echoing alley stairs / To visit nightlife ladies and tease their neon hair / Kenny’s on the rooftop with a drifting midnight wail.”

Piper’s opening hex, a scathing catalog of 80s trendiness, creates a demand for something authentic, which the playwright supplies in the form of fiercely egalitarian poems. They may refuse to gel into a play, but their exuberant range and Algren-like intensity compensate for the lack of structure. Hernandez (through actors Pat Bowie, Johnny Lee Davenport, and Henry Godinez) tells of pigeons on broken glass (alas), rapping gang-bopper Chi Town Brown (Godinez) and his significant street smarts, a pregnant woman’s passion for the life within her, and a fearless chant about eviction, “We Pack,” that refuses to go quietly. Hernandez doesn’t penetrate the people in his poems, he’s in there with them; and Chuck Smith’s staging carries the same conviction.

In The News From St. Petersburg, Rich Orloff puts several patented Chekhov characters–two elegantly useless aristocrats, a jaded doctor, and a rapacious peasant–through some occasionally hilarious, if anachronistic, paces. With vaporous Chekhovian indirectness, the landowner Fyodor (Charles Noel) and Anya (Mary Seibel), his elegantly languishing wife (“I miss feudalism so much”), are dropping names–assorted jaw-breaking patronymics–and after a huge rush of Slavic syllables, Fyodor drily comments, “I hear that in America there are people named Bob.” Suddenly their manservant, Sasha (Gerry Becker), rushes in with news–that the czar has abdicated and . . . “you’re doomed!” As he proceeds to turn over the estate to the wave of the future, Fyodor bursts into a gushing mimicry of the endless leave-takings in The Cherry Orchard. (However, the year, it turns but, is 1905, and Sasha’s triumph is some 12 years premature.)

Orloff’s send-up–like all spoofs, definitely written from the outside in–would succeed if it were consistent, but, as if Stanislavsky had suddenly lapsed into a Second City skit, Orloff keeps throwing in modern slang sheerly for the shock effect–and so good-bye, parody. Still, the performances prove satire-sharp, particularly Jeffrey Steele’s opportunistic doctor, Becker’s double-talking Sasha, and Seibel’s “let them eat borscht” blue-blooded bimbo. Maureen Kennedy’s period costumes do maintain their consistency throughout.

Mixing poetic soliloquies and ashcan realism in Floor Above the Roof, Daniel Therriault doggedly attempts to get inside his four New York loading-dock workers. Instead he’s stuck four good actors with four black-and-white stereotypes, one-trick ponies made to jump endlessly through the playwright’s hoops.

Fiercely proud of his freight elevator (though we don’t know why), Hispanic Elroy (Henry Godinez) is happy to be working in this warehouse (sounds like a Reagan fantasy), adores his many children, and has sex on the brain from dawn to dawn. An illegal Trinidad immigrant, Jay (Michael E. Myers), also loves his work and wants to make good for the wife and child who are (legally) flying in to join him this day. (Of course, he’s too damn happy to survive.) Furious at being treated like a mere “lump of muscle,” Swifty (Ed Blatchford) is the underappreciated (“These guys treat me like I don’t belong!”), ferociously anti-Semitic white man, who one moment mumbles like a brain-damaged redneck and the next rhapsodizes like a poet in heat (“I’ll put her to my lips till I faint away”). Finally, Johnny Lee Davenport plays the drunken, misogynistic, jive-talking malcontent Cantor, a derelict goldbrick enraged that he’s a tenth-generation American but still has no house in the suburbs. (Yes, these characters label themselves.) You better believe Cantor gets it in the melodramatic end.

Despite Joseph Sadowski’s feeling staging and Therriault’s evident intention to create characters from the inside out, all four are strictly surface. The mindless macho swagger, the obligatory shaking of fists (“I’m bustin’ out of here,” seethes Cantor), the set speeches, purple passages, and automatic confessions come exactly where the playwright wants them–and to hell with context or (as in Orloff’s work) any consistency of tone. This constant commentary on the characters by the characters kills off credibility wonderfully. And, since Therriault writes despite his characters, the actors trapped inside them have to work overtime to repair the damage. To their great credit they nearly pull it off, but acting from the outside in is just too much to ask.