Wisdom Bridge Theatre and Cullen, Henaghan & Platt Productions

Forced feeling is now being inflicted on audiences at the Wisdom Bridge Theatre through a play with the transparent title Soft Remembrance. This generic title is a giveaway; with no hint of a subject, it reveals both the play’s method and its desired effect–an all-purpose, by-the-numbers orgy of unspontaneous nostalgia.

This aggressive memory mongerer by Sol Saks (creator of the TV series Bewitched) is a safe and smug drama, clumsily built from familiar ethnic and emotional cliches that are intended to trigger fond memories of earlier cliches. They remind you of everything, convince you of nothing–this play couldn’t be more reflexive, derivative, or maudlin.

Soft Remembrance is placed in Depression Chicago, though there’s little of the city in the details beyond allusions to 12th and 14th streets, the Cubs and Sox, and the LaSalle Street Station. It feels older than its setting or even its immediate source, the once-great hit Abie’s Irish Rose. But that crude comedy at least acknowledged the ethnic tensions between its Irish and Jewish families; Soft Remembrance just papers them over. That’s not surprising: this play will do nothing to confront its target audiences with unpleasant facts about social or religious prejudice.

The play focuses on two curmudgeonly fathers who are ever so cutely brought together through their married children: Sam Green, a Jewish immigrant who owns a paint store on the west side, and Mike Banlon, an Irish immigrant who runs a streetcar on the 12th Street line. Saks emphasizes their kinship by contriving traits that match. They love to frequent the same library, where Sam writes Yiddish poems about the old country; Mike loves to listen to Sam’s poems and accompany them on his violin. Sam hates the cossacks; Mike detests the English. Sam enjoys filling shiny turpentine cans in his store; Mike loves days when no passengers try to hand him expired transfers. Nearly broke and amusingly alcoholic, Mike teaches Sam how to drink the hard stuff (which he gets from his own still) and to converse with his statue of Saint “Tony” (a smarmy scene that manages to patronize and insult both religions); Sam helps Mike redeem his violin from a pawn shop.

The first act sags with a series of repetitious bonding scenes between these spin-offs from I’m Not Rappaport (which means that the dozen other characters are barely sketched in–stranding some of Chicago’s finest actors in dead-end roles). The first act, which is devoid of conflict or direction, ends with Mike erupting in a drunken, wife-beating rage that comes out of nowhere. A scene without a setup–like so much here–it’s a desperate first-act finish. And when it’s over, there’s nothing at stake to bring us back.

So it’s no surprise the second act feels like a new episode in a “Mike and Sam” sitcom. Saks has invented another out-of-nowhere complication: Sick of their jobs, Mike and Sam impulsively decide to chuck their families, friends, and skills and run off to become chicken ranchers in California. Their strategy is to tell the Californians that Sam is a cunning Jewish businessman (he’s not–this is the only time Saks defies his stereotypes) and then hope that the rumor scares customers into buying their chickens. (The dream has no originality; many 30s and 40s films used the chicken farm as the archetypal escape from the city. Even then it was a cliche resolution.)

Predictably, when the families discover this attempted escape they’re furious. But despite the fact that their husbands intended to abandon them after leaving only a note behind, the wives discover–by sharing two painfully obvious anecdotes–that they still love the old farts. Improbably, they agree to pull up stakes and head west.

Even for a script that panders to audience expectations, the ending is absurd. We were never rooting for the chicken farm; it was just one more arbitrary plot development. Worse, it ignored the play’s real problem–Mike’s destructive boozing, which won’t go away.

Soft Remembrance is filled with so many lost opportunities, the saddest of which is the first meeting of the Green and Banlon parents. Saks could have established the ethnic friction that these fellow Chicagoans could overcome, but, no Woody Allen, he wastes the moment on a stupid sight gag: Mike hides in a chest while a cop searches the house for his still. After that, it’s downhill; the only other potential source of conflict, a squabble between the husbands, would require the writer to take too much of a risk–he might upset 2 to 15 people in the audience.

Intent on sparing us no bit of schmaltz, Arnie Saks’s staging is packed with earnest pauses for effect, such as the Greens lurching in terror whenever they see the Banlons’ crucifix. These pauses alternate with embarrassing outbursts of unmotivated histrionics. In short, the staging’s faithful to the script.

At least Saks found a superb cast to waste on this pap. Chicago favorite Byrne Piven (shorn of his trademark beard) craftily dumbs himself down to play Sam as a softhearted dreamer with a bad case of the cutes. With two twinkles in each eye, Malachy McCourt fills Mike with so much easy blarney it’s a constant surprise when the play reminds us he’s a soused thug.

Though the cast serve mainly as emotional window dressing, Linda Stephens and Etel Billig do what they can to suggest the buried hopes of the all-suffering wives. A sympathetic actor, Fredric Stone deserves better than to play Morty, Sam’s hardworking, much-pilloried son–likewise Gerry Becker, who plays a priest who gives Mrs. Banlon some astoundingly boring Hallmark-card advice. Eleven- year-old Erin Creighton has the thankless part of Mike’s daughter. She cheers him up when he’s drunk by dancing to his fiddle, but later–in yet another unmotivated eruption–denounces him as a selfish, cruel lush. And then, to complete the shameless emotional manipulation, sobs and hugs him. Equal sympathy goes to Tom Webb, whose big moment is to play a stupid Irish drunk, John Hanlon, who spews anti-Semitic slurs at Sam (the only Jew he ever met); when Sam improbably decides to fight the lug, John says he likes him.

Soft Remembrance represents a questionable coupling of Wisdom Bridge, a not-for-profit theater, and Cullen, Henaghan & Platt Productions, Chicago’s biggest commercial producer. It’s no mystery why the latter was drawn to Saks’s concoction; though much weaker than Driving Miss Daisy, Steel Magnolias, or Shirley Valentine, Soft Remembrance is a cozy, feel-good play and, not irrelevantly, a world premiere–something these producers have long been criticized for not encouraging.

The question is, why is Wisdom Bridge part of this venture? Especially since the tax laws encourage not-for-profit theaters to take risks. The saddest decline in Chicago theater this side of Steppenwolf’s recent season is Wisdom Bridge’s. The theater that gave us Kabuki Medea, Rat in the Skull, and In the Belly of the Beast has become the purveyor of such easy listening as Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill and Forever Plaid. Now comes Soft Remembrance and Steppenwolf’s Wrong Turn at Lungfish–how quickly some theaters lose their courage and credibility. Let’s hope they get strong soon.