Great Chicago Playwrights Exposition

at the Victory Gardens Theater

Chicago theater has been caught up in a wave that I am told is sweeping the country. We’re being inundated by short works (the term “one-act” is passe). Right now we can see the Center Theater’s 3 by Shaw, the National Jewish Theater’s Three by Mankowitz, and the Summer Shorts Festival at the Organic Lab Theater. And at Play Expo, sponsored by Body Politic and Victory Gardens, three of the five programs are devoted to shorts.

A number of theories have been advanced as to why “plays without intermission” (Albee’s term) are experiencing such a resurgence in American theater. Some say it is because television has shortened our attention span. Others point to the reemergence of resident companies, which make casting an evening of short works affordable. But I think the main reason for it is our thirst for new material. Theater companies take great pains to find things no one else is doing, and many short pieces, even by major playwrights, have long been overlooked. Meanwhile, starting playwrights frequently find the short form less intimidating than the long. Today’s brilliant short could herald tomorrow’s major playwright.

Shorts #3 presents two hopefuls: William J. Norris and Clifton Campbell.

Norris’s Before I Wake begins as a straightforward play about a relationship. It opens with ex-cop Daniel sitting in what appears to be his living room. His daughter calls him from the hospital, where it seems that someone in the family is dying. Without warning, a middle-aged woman walks into the room, much to Daniel’s dismay. This unwelcome visitor turns out to be Molly, Daniel’s ex-wife of ten years past.

After a few minutes of bantering, the couple settle down to an evening of memories. It becomes obvious that Daniel still cares for this “old fire breather,” and she for him. They discuss the problems of their failed marriage and try to resolve them. It is a touching portrayal of a couple trying to come to terms with the past.

And then, three-quarters of the way through, the script takes a turn for the weird. Suddenly nothing is as it appears to be. The playwright obviously intended his surprise to send our minds careering, only to circle back to the play with a deeper understanding. But to tell the truth, my deepest thought was, “What is going on?!” We entered, it seemed, another play altogether.

Director Susan Osborne-Mott adds to the schizophrenic nature of the piece by playing down what hints there are of the euphemistic nature of the setting. Without those clues, Norris’s revelation hits us with the clumsy force of an oncoming train.

Along with its structural problem, Before I Wake suffers from being too locked into the memories of its characters. The piece is dominated by long, static soliloquies. Obviously, memories must be brought out somehow, but there are many more active ways to do this than the ones Norris has chosen.

Edgar Meyer plays the cop with a gruff and grudging charm. Joan Spatafora makes a feisty Molly. The two have an interesting chemistry together, but it’s not quite enough to make up for the sluggishness of the text.

Clifton Campbell shows off some wonderful talent with The Figure, a well-crafted, Pinteresque play centered on a Florida police investigation of a grisly death.

It begins with two cops starting off their day by looking into the demise of a woman in the Florida Everglades. Her head and hands have been chewed off by an alligator, making it impossible to identify the body. The only possible lead is the teenaged couple that discovered the body in the cold morning light after “an evening to remember” in the swamp. We follow the detectives’ interrogation through one complete day, during which time the play’s focus shifts from the search for the mutilated woman’s identity to disclosures about the four characters, the two teenagers in particular.

Beneath Campbell’s simple words, emotions writhe with disarming force. And as the interrogation becomes more and more complex, language itself changes. Engulfed in an analytical nightmare, the “good” and “bad” cops become completely intertwined.

Director Terry McCabe has done a superb job of heightening the intrigue. Movement is as sharp and distinct as dialogue. Each new scene begins in semidarkness, which forbids the audience to become too comfortable in the blackouts, lest they miss something. Whether this was a writing choice or a directorial choice, it works.

Phil Locker as the “bad cop” beautifully juggles Sam Spade-style cynicism and the lascivious manipulations of an asshole authority. We’re not sure who he really is. Tom Mula was a bit flit as the “good cop,” not surprising since he stepped into the role at the last minute. But he and Locker worked well together.

Mary MacDonald Kerr and Ramsay Midwood are plausible as the underage couple. Midwood looks slightly too clean-cut to be the drunken young redneck that the script indicates, but this makes it easy to accept the character’s essential naivete. Kerr is delightfully natural as a helpful young thing, but sensuality is the essence of her character and Kerr doesn’t have enough of it.

Robert Shook’s lighting greatly enhanced both shows, and James Dardenne’s set design simply transformed the space into two distinct and appropriate rooms. Glenn Billings was the competent costume designer.

A more traditional evening is Gardinia’s ‘n’ Blum by Nicholas A. Patricca, one of Play Expo’s two full-length productions. Complete with mafiosi, a whiz kid, feds, and bookies, Gardinia’s ‘n’ Blum tells the tale of two Taylor Street survivors in their private fight against gentrification. It is a pleasant if not very penetrating look at the nature of Chicago neighborhoods.

Except for an amazing performance by Bernie Landis as Tony Gardinia, and some fun moments from Joan Spatafora’s Ange, the bookie tenant, the play suffers from an uninspired though watchable treatment at the hands of director Dennis Zacek and the cast.

Landis, however, almost makes up for it. He knows Tony Gardinia down to his fingertips, and loves him. Bernie Landis fills the whole house with his anger and exuberance, pulling everyone to him like a giant Italian magnet. If only for this performance, Gardinia’s ‘n’ Blum is worth a viewing.