Victory Gardens Theater

I saw John Ford Noonan’s best-known play, A Coupla White Chicks Sitting Around Talking, in 1983, at the Drury Lane Theatre at Water Tower Place. That theater’s a multiscreen movie complex now, but it used to house an in-the-round stage with fat, soft, fall-asleep seats and lots of garish red carpeting. The lobby was done in schlock rococo–all frosty white with gilt accents and mirrors, mirrors, mirrors.

Your basic bad-taste luxury palace, in short. A city cousin to those suburban halls dedicated to the Cadillac-and-mink-stole aesthetic. The sort of place where you’d expect to find Cloris Leachman between projects, appearing in some silly star vehicle comedy. Which is precisely what A Coupla White Chicks was. Cloris played a loudmouth named Hannah Mae.

The Victory Gardens Theater isn’t like that. Quiet and comfortable where the Drury Lane was loud and plush, earnest and intelligent where the Drury Lane’s every curlicue fairly screamed with a calculated vulgarity–as if to say, “Relax, folks, we’re all philistines here; we’re not gonna throw you anything that’s over your head”–the Victory Gardens invites a more sophisticated response. A more intimate engagement. The place feels like a living room for several hundred.

So it’s a little eerie to watch what happens when another John Ford Noonan script, Some Men Need Help, plays Victory Gardens. Suddenly, it seems, the carpeting’s bright red and the lobby’s sprouted mirrors. There’s a sickly sweet scent of froufrou in the air. The ambient IQ plunges. And the voice of Cloris Leachman comes to us from a distance, cackling like Hannah Mae and saying, “We’re all philistines here, pal.”

Somehow, Noonan’s work brings the Drury Lane with it wherever it goes–not unlike Mephistophilis in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, who carries hell on his back through all the cosmos. Where Noonan is is tripe. And where tripe is, there must Noonan ever be.

The effects of Drurization are obvious from the start, in Rick Paul’s generically conceived, generically handled, generically cheery suburban kitchen set; and in Ellen E. Jones’s incongruous lighting, which–perhaps as an act of quiet rebellion–insists on giving us the middle of the night when the script keeps telling us nine in the morning.

But the real tripe doesn’t kick in until Dennis Farina and Ed Blatchford start playing out Noonan’s imbecile situation. Some Men is an almost scene-for-scene rewrite of A Coupla White Chicks, but for the fact that where Chicks gave us nouveau riche white trash Hannah Mae trying to endear herself to a tight-ass Westchester County matron, Men offers us nouveau riche wop hood Gaetano Altobelli trying to reform an arrogant young WASP alcoholic named Hudley T. Singleton III.

Noonan’s approach to this conceit is contrived beyond contrivance and truckling beyond truckle, and I don’t really feel like going into it–except to say what a shame it is that Noonan’s either unwilling or incapable of exploring the implications of his own setup. Here he’s got this rather mysterious guy, Gaetano, literally moving in on Hudley–redecorating his house, redoing his wardrobe, changing his job, feeding him information, dominating him in just about every possible way–and neither Noonan nor director Dennis Zacek seems willing to consider the sinister implications. Pure sunshine from beginning to end. Incredible. If you want to see what happens when a real playwright gets hold of a situation like this, check out Lyle Kessler’s Orphans. It’s on video now.

But whatever you do, don’t go to Victory Gardens while it remains under the Drury Lane hex. No, not even to see Farina and Blatchford: two solid, smart, talented actors who can’t help but be bad here. I’m told the idea for pursuing this project came from Blatchford and Farina themselves. But actors see roles where audiences see plays. Farina and Blatchford may get a lot of stage time here, but the script as a whole is unworthy of them. And of Zacek. And of the Victory Gardens. And it shows.

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