THE BLUE HOUR CITY SKETCHES and
THE VERMONT SKETCHES
at Stage Left Theatre
SEXUAL PERVERSITY IN CHICAGO
at the Factory Theatre
All manner of mystical meanings have been attributed to the plays of actor-turned-playwright Harold Pinter, but his characters’ communications are not so much deliberately cryptic as they are literal transcriptions of how people actually speak–that is, in an abbreviated code based on shared assumptions (which can easily seem oracular to an audience ignorant of those assumptions). For much the same reasons the plays of actor-turned-playwright David Mamet are almost as enigmatic–a major part of their appeal to actors, who cannot resist filling up the huge spaces between Mamet’s words with something of their own creation.
The Vermont Sketches and The Blue Hour City Sketches were written, according to Mamet, en route to larger plays. These dramatic snippets are not outtakes, however, but exercises to keep the writer in practice when inspiration waned. Likewise the members of the newly formed Walking Company decided to stretch themselves in these virtual free-form sketches.
Stretch, indeed: the longest of the pieces on this program is a mere 75 lines, and many dialogues consist only of the monosyllabic exchanges characteristic of Mamet’s naturalistic style: “Where are you going?” “Home.” “Why?” “Why?” “Yeah.” “Because I’m finished here.” “You’re finished what?” “Sitting here.” “You are?” “Yes.” Frequently the speakers are not even assigned names, and it’s up to the performers to establish personalities and relationships from the script’s scanty clues. The swift changes in locale necessitated by the brevity of these ten separate and distinct playlets permit only the most minimal of sets and props.
So what we have here essentially is a group of theater people doing their exercises, which consist of a writer doing his exercises, and both of them charging money–admission or royalties–for the privilege of viewing them at their work. What makes it all worthwhile is the prodigious raw talent to be found in the Walking Company. To be sure, a few of the sketches miss their mark–the actors in “Conversations With the Spirit World” and “Pint’s a Pound the World Around” are several decades too young to be convincing as country codgers, and in “The Doctor” the cast have been directed to take their characters far more seriously than Mamet ever intended.
But other of these hit-and-run vignettes are right on target. In “Businessmen” a corporate drone (Jimmie A. Cumbie) nostalgically recalls his youth as a Great Lakes sailor on leave in Chicago, invoking the sensual comforts of coffee and chili on a winter day so vividly that we can almost taste them ourselves. Also on the mark is the exchange in “The Hat” between a saleswoman (Shawna Franks) and her customer (Hanna Dworkin), who is prepared to spend a small fortune on the perfect attire for a job interview. “Deer Dogs” is Mamet at his most comic, with the sunny Dan Meyer debating Cumbie on the question of whether a dog is innocent until proven guilty. The most memorable performance, however, is Michael Shannon’s as a runaway teenager in “In the Mall,” concealing with poignant nonchalance his envy of a shopper snacking on an ice cream cone before returning home. Shannon, who appears in five of the pieces on the program and directs four others, has been working in Chicago for less than two years and he’s already won a Jeff citation. If he doesn’t burn himself out before his 19th birthday Chicago could have another John Malkovich on its hands.
The openness of Mamet’s Vermont and Blue Hour sketches allows them to be easily adapted to an audience, once assumptions that make for communication are established. But Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago is unfortunately not so protean.
While revolutionary and revelatory enough at its premiere in 1974, Mamet’s satirical study of courting customs among the Saturday Night Fever set seems sadly quaint today. Its vocabulary has long since grown passe–“So what sign are you? Scorpio?”–as has the practice of preceding formal acquaintance with a round or two of experimental sex. The characters too–a clumsy but well-meaning couple and their two piggishly cynical buddies–and their material have grown stale, endlessly recycled on TV sitcoms. “Men! They’re all after only one thing. But it’s never the same thing,” says the hostile and repressed Joan. Meanwhile the wimpy Dan laments, “Nobody does it normally anymore!”
But InFusion Productions, in connection with the Vagabond Players, has not revived this war-horse simply so that its hip young collegiate audience can have a jolly good chortle at the idiocy of their elders. In a statement printed in the program InFusion claims to be concerned about “sexual promiscuity and negative attitudes towards those who respect sexual intimacy.” And so they offer this cautionary tale on the follies of sex before marriage–overlooking the evidence of high divorce rates that marital commitment and even children are no guarantee of genuine intimacy and mutual understanding.
Ultimately, though, it’s Mamet’s script and not the producers’ editorial stance that sinks this production. Even apart from its obvious anachronisms the universe of this play, with its predatory men and passive women, no longer reflects any but a small, parochial segment of current society. The cast and company show genuine talent–James Anthony Zoccoli and Jennifer A. Hogan as the agitators attack their unappealing roles with SNL-style relish, while Casey P. Freund and Mollie Fullerton make an attractive, if rather bland, pair of lovers. But the only real response provoked today by Mamet’s naive characters is ridicule from naive audiences meeting them for the first time.