at Live Bait Theater
By Nick Green
Five years ago, at the tender age of three, Roadworks put on the Chicago premiere of Eric Bogosian’s SubUrbia. Just securing the rights was something of a coup, and the production was sold out for much of its four-month run at the Theatre Building. In recent years Roadworks has followed up on that success with a series of high-profile offerings, including a 1996 staging of filmmaker Mike Leigh’s Ecstasy that went on to a six-month run in Los Angeles.
The characters in Roadworks’ latest production, the world premiere of Melissa James Gibson’s deeply ironic [Sic], recall the aimless, emotionally conflicted slackers of SubUrbia. Gibson’s characters in this meditative quasi comedy are terminally frustrated and endlessly frustrating, three failed professionals in their 30s who’ve been friends for years and live next door to one another. Self-styled composer Theo, neurotic book editor Babette, and would-be auctioneer Frank ignore all the big issues to debate the fine points of ordering Chinese and the desirability of having one’s head frozen after death.
Aging New York bohemians, Gibson’s failed artists have a different set of concerns than Bogosian’s restless booze hounds and punks. While they’re searching only for identities, Theo, Babette, and Frank are implicitly looking for meaning and spiritual fulfillment–and not finding them.
In fact the theme running throughout [Sic] is that human existence is too complex to be explained or distilled, a truth epitomized by Theo’s struggle to compose a simple melody on his keyboard. More jingle writer than true musician, he’s engaged in the most soulless of musical pursuits: creating theme music for an amusement-park attraction, Thrillorama. Unfortunately, his composition is as hyperbolic and commercial as the ride’s name. And when Frank drops by to offer his suggestions–good ones–Theo becomes indignant: “The gestalt of Thrillorama cannot be reduced to a formula!”
Gibson’s script is far from formulaic–in fact, much of what transpires in the hallway and apartments of [Sic] can’t be logically explained. Time, for example, is indefinite. Frank supposedly leaves for two weeks on his first assignment as an auctioneer but returns, defeated, less than a minute later in the play’s next scene–an oddity on which the other characters comment. Space, too, has unusual qualities on the third floor of this apartment complex: characters occasionally step through walls rather than doors. Their daydreams are dramatized. And yet [Sic] has a sense of linear progression and physically defined spaces–there’s just no clear logic to all the script’s temporal and spatial disruptions.
Far more disorienting is the way the characters’ interactions take shape: the three don’t so much communicate as miscommunicate. For a group of next-door neighbors who spend nearly every waking moment together, they seem to know precious little about one another. They’ve apparently gleaned small bits of information from the gossip of Frank’s ex-lover Larry and Mrs. Jorgensen, the decrepit old woman in 3N who may or may not have died. But rather than articulate their feelings or have any kind of meaningful conversation, these three just awkwardly occupy the same space. They seem ripe for an episode of Seinfeld–but a 90-minute play with such characters is a considerably more frustrating experience for the audience. By denying our expectations of theater and writing a play about nothing, Gibson brings those expectations to light. At the same time, the erratic, unpredictable elements of her play do work as a whole, however obliquely they come together.
Director Melissa Kievman has been collaborating with Gibson on [Sic] for the past year, and her production adds dimension to the script. She’s gracefully staged the potentially ponderous daydream sequences as shadow-puppet routines, and the way the characters’ thoughts materialize behind the vertical blinds of their apartments further blurs the line between the daydream quality of the characters’ lives and the reality of their daydreams. The fluidity of Kievman’s staging may at first seem at odds with the script’s fragmented, episodic nature, but it helps establish a through line from scene to scene.
Thanks to a crack technical team–among them set designer Geoffrey M. Curley and sound designers Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman–Gibson’s play has a clear physical reality. But [Sic] is first and foremost driven by its characters, and Kievman’s three cast members do a bang-up job. Scott Parkinson is all dry wit and deadpan irony as the put-upon Frank, while Laura T. Fisher counters with the acerbic Babette’s barbs. And Lance Baker as sexually frustrated Theo conveys a world of grief and frustration through facial expressions and gestures alone.
[Sic] could use some fine-tuning, especially smoothing the rough edges of its clunky multimedia ending, before it opens at New York’s Soho Rep this winter. But this is a terrific cast, versatile comic actors who bring their characters, warts and all, to fine, vivid life.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Sara Levinson.