Playwrights’ Center

A friend once told me he believed television had completely ruined theater. Not only were audiences less willing to leave their electronic hearths, but when they did, they were most comfortable with sitcomlike comedies and overblown musicals. He went on to say that he judged plays by how much they reflected this pernicious influence, and that the best were those written before television was invented.

I used to agree wholeheartedly, but in recent years a number of Chicago’s smaller, younger theaters have created perfectly respectable shows influenced by both theatrical traditions and television conventions. For example, the Neo-Futurists play on their audience’s expectation that whatever they’re watching will be interrupted in a minute or two by something completely different by structuring their late-night show Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind as a series of short sketches–many no longer than a television commercial–performed in no predetermined order.

An even more obvious fusing of television and theater is Metraform’s The Real Live TV Night, which pairs a game show with a parodic homage to The Brady Bunch, and sprinkles the result with real commercials purchased by local merchants and performed by the cast.

The most recent hybridizing attempt by a local company is the Playwrights’ Center’s late-night show The Cafe With No Name. Billed as a soap opera, it’s really more of a sitcom; the problems the characters face are treated lightly, and each half-hour episode is self-contained–the shows, which change weekly, could be rerun in any order with little loss of coherence. Two weeks ago Carter sold her soul to the devil in return for a better relationship with her boyfriend, Daniel, and would have been carried off to hell had Daniel not been able to outfox the prince of darkness. The week before that the six-foot talking banana was a contestant on a parodic version of Studs.

The nameless cafe of the show’s title is a Cheers-like gathering place presided over by a gruff but likable “bartender” named Sal. The cafe attracts a regular cast of nine eccentric types–including an actor, his girlfriend, the banana–who find themselves entangled in various comic situations.

The authors–primarily Lou Anders and Eric Spitz-Nagel, though guest authors such as Don Washington and Scott Wagmeister have helped write certain episodes–either through design or inexperience do a pretty good job of avoiding many of the well-worn sitcom formulas. Which is both good and bad. On the downside, many episodes lack a clear narrative direction. Characters enter, make jokes, get involved in absurd situations, and exit–without adding one beat to the story. On the up side, this perhaps unintentional chaos all but guarantees that when a story does eventually emerge, it will have the spontaneity of an improvised scene.

The show has two major flaws. First, the quality of the scripts varies incredibly from week to week–a symptom, I suspect, of the fact that the authors, with a weekly deadline, don’t have time to polish their material. For example, last week’s confused show about the attempts of a pair of bumbling spies to extract information from one of the cafe’s regulars was not very funny. But the show two weeks ago was significantly better, and the show three weeks ago was laugh-out-loud funny.

Second, and more troubling, the show’s repeating characters are not very clearly delineated. They all have been given names and occupations, but after seeing several episodes and having read the scripts for the first six shows, I really couldn’t tell you what makes Chris, “a writer,” substantially different from Daniel, “an actor,” or Steve, “the MC.” This is doubly true of the women, whose personalities run together into one bland male projection of what women are supposed to be like. On paper they all talk and act alike, despite the fact that Lynda is supposed to be “a writer,” Alice “a waitress,” Sam and Erin a thoroughly modern lesbian couple, and Carter a combination “ditz, slut, little girl, and bitch.” Part of this is the direction, but only part. After all, actors can only give their roles so many quirks and foibles before they start denying the authors’ intentions.

Still, the show is young and so is the cast. With an open-ended run and the need to do a new script every week, the authors and actors certainly have time enough to refine their characters and make this show shine.