Strawdog Theatre

Strawdog Theatre Company’s Speed the Play offers something that very few theater companies in the city are offering these days–an intelligent evening. Though these four one-acts are radically different in form and content, they’re linked by the desire to satirize contemporary society and to leave the audience with something interesting to talk about. And you’d have a hard time doing better than the $6.99 Strawdog is charging.

Speed the Play begins a little shakily with Lux in Tenebris (“Light in Darkness”), an early and somewhat dated Bertolt Brecht one-act about prostitution, morality, and hypocrisy. One Mr. Paduk seeks to profit from the public’s prurient interests by opening an exhibit on the horrors of sexual disease right across the street from the local brothel. As the play goes on we learn that Mr. Paduk’s interest in educating the public comes not so much from a desire to preserve their health as from his anger at once having been ejected from said brothel. Brecht examines the parallels between the way Mr. Paduk exploits his assistant and the way a madame exploits her prostitutes, and ridicules the public’s absurd moral posturing by showing that the blushing, cackling, raincoat-clad individuals attending the exhibit are often the same sort who frequent the prostitutes. The conclusion, which shows Mr. Paduk and the madame becoming partners in exploitation, is obvious and predictable but effective.

The script seems to have been chosen for its connection with Dan Quayle & Company’s recent hypocritical speeches about family values and America’s cultural elite; but in this production the play feels a little worn and creaky. Brecht addressed many of the same ideas more interestingly in later works, and some of the passages are stiff and seem poorly translated. But Strawdog effectively captures the work’s themes, and the enthusiastic cast makes this a very watchable effort.

The evening continues with a two-character sketch about the shallowness of relationships in the 90s. In David Ives’s Sure Thing a young man tries to pick up a woman reading The Sound and the Fury in a cafe. Each time his attempts at conversation fail, a bell is rung and he must begin his efforts to woo her again. Dozens of pickup lines are shot down, and the number of possible directions a conversation can take after the obligatory “Is this seat taken?” is dizzying.

This is familiar territory, but it succeeds for the simple reason that it is very, very funny and very, very true. Ives’s quick and assured writing recalls a young Woody Allen or the early Nichols and May. The script is helped immeasurably by a couple of excellent performances by John Cohen and Demi Peterson.

The best offering of the evening’s four-course meal is Caryl Churchill’s Hot Fudge, performed without its companion piece, Ice Cream. In about a half hour Hot Fudge manages to satirize capitalist society–lower-class versus middle-class values, blue-collar versus white-collar crime–and deception and betrayal between men and women. A woman tries to conceal her family’s criminal background in order to impress her white-collar boyfriend, but he turns out to be every bit as corrupt as anyone she’s ever known. At the end Churchill delivers a final ironic comment by showing that the man and woman are actually drawn together because they’re both liars who have sought to deceive each other.

Churchill uses her trademark technique of double-casting to highlight the similarities between petty criminals and white-collar thieves; her savagely pointed sense of humor is in fine form here. The Hot Fudge cast is excellent, with particularly well realized performances by Shannon Branham and Laurie Dawn.

David Ives’s Speed the Play, a send-up of David Mamet that zooms through four of his plays in seven minutes, is the evening’s least effective one-act. Though the idea is amusing and some of the performances are quite funny, the parody does nothing to explain Mamet’s appeal or examine his work. It’s become a cliche to mimic Mamet characters saying “Fuck you,” “You’re fuckin’ right,” and so on. Second City did something similar about ten years ago, and lately Mr. Mamet’s been doing a better job of Mamet parody than anybody. The play’s only seven minutes, but after two minutes it’s said everything it has to say.

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