The Sweat Offensive

Pretzelrod Productions

at the Organic Theater Company Greenhouse, through August 28

We all tell stories. Stories to explain ourselves, to describe our experiences. Stories to create the illusion that we have some power over our lives and the world. And we all love to listen to stories for the same reasons–it’s great to hear a storyteller create a world we can believe in, at least for as long as the tale lasts.

For two years the folks at Pretzelrod Productions have been doing just that: bringing us an evening’s worth of short monologues written and performed by a group of witty actresses–the Sweat Girls–who proved in shows like I’m Sweating Under My Breasts, Who Does She Think She Is? and Sweat Dreams that they have the intelligence, self-knowledge, and sense of humor to give even their most personal stories universal appeal.

Which makes Pretzelrod’s dismal current show all the more disappointing. This 26-hour evening of overwritten, underrehearsed monologues definitely lacks universal appeal. But it’s not the Sweat Girls’ fault. For some reason they’re sitting this one out: six local male performers have been recruited to do a male version of the Sweat Girls’ shows–“I’m Sweating Under My Pecs,” as it were. Unfortunately the Sweat Boys don’t, on the whole, have their female counterparts’ gifts as storytellers. At least, half of them don’t–and that’s enough to tip The Sweat Offensive into that gray area between the “can miss” and “must miss” categories.

The previous Pretzelrod shows gained a lot of power from their mildly feminist premise: an evening of stories by and about women–stories, I hasten to add, about subjects that are usually too strong for delicate male ears (and egos). Like Dorothy Milne’s funny/sad tales of losing boyish boyfriends because they were scared by her strong sex drive. Or Pamela Webster’s killing piece on the hormonal changes that came with her pregnancy, of how a woman’s feet and clitoris can swell.

But this time it’s an evening of guys talking. And we’ve heard guytalk all our lives. Especially straight, white guytalk. Ninety percent of literature, movies, and TV and 99 percent of stand-up is straight, white guytalk. So the standards for it are higher. And sadly the guys in the show–at least the straight, white guys–are not up to the challenge.

Bill Ellison’s unfocused monologue pretty much sets the tone (dreary) and pace (leaden) for the evening. It’s hard to say exactly what this long, slow, nonlinear piece is about. In his endless time onstage, Ellison brings up many things: his jumpy mother, his long-suffering father, a terrible automobile accident in college, his current life as a motorcyclist who sometimes dozes off on the road. But he lacks the skill or will or self-knowledge to pull it all together into a single compelling story. To make matters worse, he hadn’t yet fully memorized his monologue on opening night. Which meant his story frequently came to a dead halt until an offstage prompter could remind Ellison what happened next in his life (not a good thing for a monologue that already feels ten minutes too long).

Nor was Ellison the only performer who’d failed to learn his lines by opening night. Gregg Mierow and Peter Greenberg also stumbled and stuttered their way through their pieces, and Greenberg too had to call offstage for hints of what he should say next. Even Phil Ridarelli, an Equity actor known for the strength and self-assurance of his performances, seemed insecure. As he coughed and muttered through a wonderful reminiscence about working among the disabled at the Little Village in Palatine, I began to wonder if these weren’t symptoms of some psychological plague infecting all us straight, white men. Like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s plague of insomnia in One Hundred Years of Solitude, only this one’s a plague of cluelessness. Which is particularly ironic, because self-knowledge is abundant in the Sweat Girls’ work.

Ellison doesn’t seem to understand just how self-destructive his many near-accidents are, or how defensive and armored in the Reichian sense he seems onstage, with his cool, tough-guy stance and masklike face. Greenberg entertains us with stories about how he slept with his best friend’s girlfriend, lied to his friend about it, and allowed relationship after relationship to die because he failed to keep in touch with his lovers, yet he never seems aware of the deeper meanings of his behavior. Even Ridarelli’s story, which touches on an accident his father suffered when Ridarelli was just out of high school, resonates with guilt and remorse Ridarelli never addresses, nor even seems fully aware of. To put it simply: my cohorts depressed me.

Without Jimmy Doyle and John Hildreth, this show would have been dismal indeed. Hildreth, late of Cardiff Giant and current Second City cast member, has always been a funny man. His control of his body and facial expressions is exquisite, and his delivery is so fine that he can make even a mildly funny line brilliant. But his comedy has never been very personal. At times he seemed more comedy machine than man.

Not so in the beautiful, hilarious monologue he performs here. It begins as a discussion of his various more or less successful attempts to avoid paying back his student loan, but the story soon wanders into far darker, more personal waters–fear of failure, fear of growing old, fear of never having kids, fear of having given up everything for fame and not getting fame either–and all of it confronted with Hildreth’s trademark wit and style.

Doyle too wades gleefully into dangerous personal waters: his mother’s suicide, his free-floating anger, his self-destructive behavior, his bad relationship with his dad, his alcoholism and chemical dependency, his life as Second City’s only out gay comic, the stupid way his anger got him fired from Second City, and his current period of healing thanks to AA, therapy, and Prozac.

Doyle doesn’t tell these stories for sympathy. Instead, he beams as he tells them, like a survivor of some awful natural disaster, relating again and again how he escaped annihilation by the skin of his teeth. And you can’t help but love him for it. By having gone to hell and back and having lived to tell about it–with wit and understanding–he gives us all hope that we’ll do the same when our difficult times come. And that’s all you can really ask of a good storyteller.