Steambath, at the Subterranean Cafe and Cabaret.

There was a time–high school to be exact–when my friends and I would talk for hours about the wild metaphysical ideas in Bruce Jay Friedman’s mild comedy Steambath (we’d all seen the PBS version, with Bill Bixby in the lead and Valerie Perrine as the breasty babe who likes going topless). At the time it seemed incredibly clever to take the premise of No Exit and give it an NYC twist: the afterlife is a steambath filled with stock New York characters, kvetching old Jewish guys, annoyingly driven stockbrokers, sweet but prissy gay men, and of course feisty Hispanics with funny accents.

Now that I’m grown-up (more or less) and have seen how Steambath looks when performed by a cast of mediocre, ineptly directed non-Equity actors, what doesn’t seem lame seems patently offensive. Like having God turn out to be a Puerto Rican. And having the only female character play the only nude scene. And having the gay couple dress alike, walk alike, speak in unison, and squeal with delight at the prospect of performing their favorite song from Gypsy. Even the sensitive failed writer comes across as just another whiny white guy (the movie The Lonely Guy was based on Friedman’s The Lonely Guy’s Book of Life).

Director Norm Tobin has changed all the New York place names to Chicago locations–which never works–and updated the action to the 80s. This results in anachronisms, as when a guy who came of age in the late 60s (early 50s in the original) quips to a younger character: “Malteds were the marijuana of my generation.” Instead Tobin should have worked on his direction–even the stronger actors, like Chuck Quinn and Jim Cantafio, seem lost–or, better still, his choice of material.

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