Genesis Theatre Company

at Chicago Actors Project

“Something Unspoken” consists of two one-act plays, each with two characters: Lanford Wilson’s Home Free! and Leonard Melfi’s Birdbath. A press notice from Genesis Theatre describes these as “naturalistic pieces that deal with people on the fringe of society. . . . in a very human and personal way.”

The situation in Home Free! is human, all right, and as personal as hemorrhoids. Lawrence and Joanna Brown are brother and sister, living together in a happy and interdependent state of incest–Larry is afraid to go outside their apartment, and Joanna, who’s less agoraphobic, has no fewer shingles loose on her roof than her brother. They amuse themselves with show-and-tell games, give each other little gifts, make fun of the grown-ups who believe Joanna’s stories about her “husband,” scold imaginary children, and do everything they can to ignore the practical problems involved in having a very real baby together. All this information is given to us in the first few minutes (the play’s overture finishes with the Looney Tunes theme), so the play consists of two characters behaving in character for an excruciatingly long time before Joanna conveniently dies from irritatingly vague causes. (The symptoms resemble those of a heart attack, but there’s no previous indication of a heart problem or any other pathological condition but an incestuous pregnancy.)

There are other questions left unanswered by the playwright: Larry and Joanna seem aware of what a pregnancy is–this isn’t an urban Blue Lagoon–but they seem so childlike that we wonder how they know, if Joanna hasn’t seen a doctor? How and where does she think she’s going to have the baby? How have two noisy adolescents in a rooming house with thin walls managed to keep their secret all this time, especially when Joanna tells some people that Larry is her husband and tells others her husband is absent? Why hasn’t a social worker spotted them long ago? What could have been tragic in another context (The Madness of Lady Bright, for example, another play by Wilson) is here merely sordid–and worse, monotonous.

Melfi’s Birdbath makes the wait worthwhile, however. This is one of those scripts so fine-tuned and well constructed that you want to distribute copies to every class for budding playwrights in the country. Frankie Basta is a young Manhattan poet complete with a set of semipsychopathic Marlon Brando mannerisms; and Velma Sparrow is an overage Bronx virgin who lives with her mother and displays all the twittering nervousness and fragmented concentration of her namesake. They meet in the restaurant kitchen where they both work, and one February night, through a series of sitcom-style circumlocutions, they wind up in Frankie’s apartment, where they play what seems to Frankie and us to be the usual resistance/insistence courting games.

Their interactions are funny–Velma thinks women who love other women are called “leprechauns”–and they’re frustrating, too, not only for Frankie but for the audience, who know something’s coming but can’t tell what it is (imagine if Stanley Kowalski and Blanche DuBois had lived in Queens). But just when you think Frankie’s going to say “We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning” and make his macho move, Velma reveals a secret about herself that changes everything. All the assumptions we’ve made about Velma and about the kind of play we’ve been watching are suddenly turned back on us, making us feel as ashamed of our blindness as Frankie is of his. (Even if you think you’ve seen all the rabbits come out of all the hats, you won’t see this one coming.)

These are sick little plays about sick little people. The newly formed Genesis Theatre Company has its work cut out for itself, making these National Enquirer atrocities into palatable entertainment. They succeed, thanks in large part to James Marsters’s direction, which keeps the action moving even when the Wilson script spins its wheels. Marsters also makes maximum use of the claustrophobic stage space–at one point, the manic Larry Brown literally bounces off the theater walls. The structure of these plays, which pussyfoot around the real subject, never becomes static or degenerates into improv exercises.

Credit is also due to the extremely skilled performers, who portray these modern obscenities with an empathy and conviction that go far beyond the usual cuddly-crazy cliches. Particularly outstanding is Tilney Sheldon, whose terminally vulgar Velma Sparrow asserts her humanity pitifully and terribly. As her would-be seducer, Steve Wallem isn’t given much to do, but he stalks his prey with a surly tomcat sensuality. As the Brown siblings, Sean O’Neil and Liane Davidson are handicapped by the inert script but deliver performances far better than the material deserves.