Goodman Theatre Studio

It’s kind of a shame that on the rare occasions when theaters experiment with dramatic form, they often wind up resurrecting old structures rather than creating new ones. Of course sometimes, as in the case of Court Theatre’s retooling of medieval mystery plays or Woody Allen’s hip one-act spins on Greek drama, you have to admire the playwright’s cleverness. Still, such plays remain uninvolving because the societies that created the original forms are centuries and centuries behind us.

In Wendy McLeod’s “contemporary morality play” Sin, a simplistic form restricts her ability to move or inspire. Despite the script’s abundant wit and many genuinely entertaining passages, after a while McLeod’s modern-day personifications of the seven deadly sins lose their luster. Finally one hungers for truer characters instead of the gaggle of squiggle-line drawings with one-sentence biographies she provides.

Avery is a radio traffic reporter with her head literally in the clouds. She boasts a collection of sinful friends and acquaintances, however. Her estranged husband Michael (SLOTH) is a mooching would-be doctor with an addiction to alcohol and to lame humor (“I have an excellent CV–the trouble is they use so much gas”); her roommate is an overweight, self-pitying junk-food addict (GLUTTONY); and she’s besieged at her office by ENVIOUS and WRATHFUL coworkers.

Regrettably, in McLeod’s conception Avery is less EVERYMAN than EVERYSNOT. She rags on her roommate’s looks and her depression-related eating disorder, snitches on a coworker, and essentially tells her AIDS-stricken brother Gerard (PRIDE) that he was responsible for getting the disease and that he looks like shit. Only through an act of God–an earthquake that literally bumps off her brother and leaves her stranded in the wilds of California–does Avery come down from the clouds and learn to empathize with people and not blame them. But before she can get back home, she must ask favors from a lecherous barfly (LUST) and a jackass businessman (GREED), steal a car, and chow down on Chee-tos, chocolate, and Budweiser. To become human, she must learn how to sin herself and refrain from judging others.

The gross oversimplifications of the script provide some of its biggest laughs. Portraying greed as a cordless-phone-toting sexist scumbag who pompously speaks Japanese to Latino waiters is a bit of a hoot. And McLeod’s vision of envy as a high-strung helicopter pilot who sees himself as “the dork who asked you to the junior prom” and declares “If you hate your job, they should pay you more” provides a modicum of giggles. But the self-indulgent and, well, moralistic tone of McLeod’s “Judge not, lest ye be judged” message is aggravating. The final sequences have the cloying air of a TV movie (which I wouldn’t be all that surprised if Sin became): Avery castigates herself for “playing God” and returns to her miraculously teetotaling husband, who applauds her for having “come down from the sky.”

Perhaps the most grating aspect of Sin is that it’s not so much about the audience’s capacity for forgiveness as the author’s. “At my worst, I judge people and dismiss them,” McLeod observes in the program. “At my best, I use my powers of observation to understand myself and others.” It’s nice to know that, like her protagonist, this heady, above-it-all Yalie can condescend to forgive the foibles of the sinful multitudes surrounding her. We may all now breathe a sigh of relief.

Luckily, the stellar cast that Goodman Theatre and director David Petrarca have assembled for Sin’s local premiere distracts us from the playwright’s preaching. Amy Morton’s monotone in the role of Avery develops more depth and believability as the evening wears on, but she’s still overwhelmed by sparkling scene-stealing performances like Steve Carell’s hilariously despicable businessman, Tim Rhoze’s smooth, catlike barfly, and Karen Vaccaro’s sad but sympathetic gluttonous roommate. At certain moments, the actors have a tendency to become screechy or overbearing, most notably Steve Pickering, who adopts a spittle-spewing Neanderthal-Wallace-Shawn take on WRATH. But even these are mainly the sins of the playwright visited on the player.

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