Boys’ Life

Trap Door Theatre

Women Behind Bars

Trap Door Theatre

As you might expect from a white, male middle-class playwright who hit his stride in the 1980s, Howard Korder is adept at combining tired ideas in conventional ways that reveal nothing new. In The Lights, for example, he took an expressionistic style of playwriting that was old hat when Elmer Rice co-opted it in his 1923 hit The Adding Machine and married it to a melodramatic story about the evils of urban life, a story D.W. Griffith would have been comfortable with: the poor are unclean and dress badly, the rich love to prey on innocent shopgirls.

For me, however, the best example of Korder’s crypto-conservative aesthetic will always be his 1988 watered-down version of David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago. Korder’s Boys’ Life, about three white middle-class men adrift in the 80s, begins by asking a mildly interesting question: Why are white middle- class heterosexual men in their 20s so alienated and immature? Then the play provides the very 80s backlash- ridden answer: Because the women in their lives castrate them at every turn, that’s why. Now get off my back!

Thus cocky, ever-swaggering Jack, who spends most of the play trying to ignite an adulterous affair with a jogger he keeps meeting in the park, is revealed to be compensating for his emasculated role as Mr. Mom, forced to stay home and raise the kid while his wife brings home the bacon. Likewise strong- willed Lisa manipulates poor, passive Don into marriage after she discovers he’s been seduced by a sexy but scary, perhaps psychotic siren (referred to in the script only as “girl”).

Every production I’ve seen of Boys’ Life stumbled on the portrayal of the women–until Matt Tauber’s intelligent, informed Trap Door staging. Actresses in this play typically have two equally problematic choices: they can swallow their self-respect and play Korder’s women as the cartoonish harridans he apparently intended them to be–in which case Korder’s misogyny undermines their performances–or they can rebel against the script and create three-dimensional female characters, revealing the play’s shallowness and making the men look like drooling idiots. Tauber gets around this problem by restaging Korder’s testosterone-poisoned play so that the women are in view throughout–sitting, standing, chatting inaudibly–in a kind of upstage limbo. From this vantage point they can see their male companions acting in Korder’s play and (presumably) talk among themselves about what’s happening.

This brilliant staging communicates two very different but related ideas about Boys’ Life. Having a chorus of apparently omniscient women watching over these boyish men like so many mommies at the park underscores just how much Korder has infantilized his male characters. This in turn makes Korder’s women seem less like harpies than hapless contemporary women forced to deal with a generation of whiners looking for mom in all the wrong places.

Tauber’s technique also helps reveal what is often invisible to the white middle-class heterosexual mainstream: that Korder’s point of view is not an objective reflection of reality but only the opinion of flawed, spoiled yuppie white boys. Suddenly Korder’s unsatisfying answers don’t seem like answers at all; they’re only the glib rationalizations of immature men searching frantically for an explanation of why they’re so unsettled and unhappy.

Tauber’s successful take on Boys’ Life makes the continued failure of Tom Eyen’s considerably more sophisticated comedy Women Behind Bars all the more mysterious. Recast and moved to 11 PM (a time presumably more congenial to Eyen’s subversive comedy than prime time), this new production is only a few baby steps closer to capturing the wild wit in Eyen’s daring spoof of and homage to women-in-prison B movies.

You no longer get the feeling that director Beata Pilch and her cast think the play is a serious work about life in a women’s correctional facility. But now their desperate overacting and clumsy, broad physical shtick convince me that they don’t have a clue how to do comedy. Pilch desperately needs to learn a thing or two, perhaps from Tauber, about how to plumb a script’s depths. Which is funny, given the anemia of Korder’s play and the richness of Eyen’s.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Ben Byer.