The Glamour House

Victory Gardens Theater

St. Nicholas

Victory Gardens Theater

Extraordinary acting overcomes ordinary material in the studio space at Victory Gardens. But unfortunately the same is not true of its main-stage show.

My mother refuses to read Agatha Christie stories because she claims their resolution always depends on a piece of evidence the author hasn’t provided. “It’s unfair,” she says. “Of course that keeps people from solving the mystery, but it’s cheating.” The Glamour House, on the main stage at Victory Gardens, is unfair, a cheat, in just that way. Playwright Lydia Stryk doesn’t give the audience enough information to understand what the heart of her mystery is. She drops plenty of clues, some with a positive thud, but they turn out to be clues to other things, not to the puzzle we’re supposed to solve. Of course the genre depends on red herrings and misdirection, but it should also involve a contract with the audience that the real path is marked somehow. The Sixth Sense is satisfying because the ending mingles surprise and recognition in the right proportions. In The Glamour House there’s too much surprise and not enough recognition.

Sandy Shinner’s production increases the play’s predictability without making the mystery any clearer. Yet there’s potential in the setup. Soon after World War II, a young German immigrant takes a job in a Manhattan dress shop owned by an older German immigrant and proceeds to charm the customers, her coworker, even passersby–everyone except the boss. By the end of the first act, it’s clear that the tension between the two has something to do with the Holocaust, but who’s hiding what? The second act fails to pay off, though, partly because its “teaser” answers–the ones offered midway–are so disappointingly obvious and partly because its genuine answers are completely unpredictable. Stryk has hidden elements of the story so successfully that the audience feels sabotaged: well, how was I supposed to know that? We enter into the spirit of the thing in the first act, spend intermission guessing and assessing clues, and then get blindsided.

Our frustration is made more acute by the play’s length: its two hours contain too many elliptical conversations between Miss Bayer (the radiant Anne Fogarty) and her employer Mrs. Stein (Deanna Dunagan, making a stalwart effort in an impossible role) and far too many passages of exposition. Indeed, Rosa the seamstress (Carmen Roman, not merely wasted in the role but saddled with an accent cribbed from the Frito Bandito) seems to exist for the sole purpose of hearing facts the playwright couldn’t otherwise convey. (Rosa’s blank-faced incomprehension as Miss Bayer alludes meaningfully to loved ones “leaving on trains” rings false: by 1947 New York was full of displaced persons–or DPs, a period locution conspicuous by its absence–and most people knew what had happened in Nazi Germany.) Miss Bayer’s suitor (Marc Jablon) seems to have no function at all.

If predictability–or its absence–is on the playwright’s head, lack of clarity is on the director’s. Shinner is rarely more than a journeyman, but in The Glamour House she makes the mistakes of an apprentice: the actors turn their backs to the audience during their most revealing moments and block one another from sight. Moreover, Shinner fails to illuminate the murky text, giving no emphasis to the few clues Stryk provides to the ultimate resolution. Instead ominous music foreshadows or underscores developments, and the characters’ relentless, unmotivated repetition of one another’s names gives the piece even more of a soap-opera feel.

Stryk has written some wonderful speeches, such as Miss Bayer’s soliloquy on the wonders of food and the virtues of girth. It’s a shame the playwright undermines it with tiresome fat jokes at the expense of the shop’s most regular customer, Mrs. Pauschel (played with game good humor by Cindy Gold). Shinner also provides some lovely nonverbal moments, as when Mrs. Pauschel and Miss Bayer immerse themselves in a box of pastries with a passion half sexual, half religious. Fogarty brings a haunting charm and the right vocal quality to a scene in which Miss Bayer imagines herself a cabaret singer in prewar Berlin. And Judith Lundberg’s costume designs give the shop’s dresses characters of their own.

But a mystery’s final reversal needs to feel earned, and this one feels pilfered.

Across the hall is Conor McPherson’s St. Nicholas. More to the point, across the hall is a one-man showcase for Greg Vinkler, worth seeing for that alone.

McPherson’s The Weir (produced last year at Steppenwolf) showed what a marvelous storyteller he is. But stories need points, and St. Nicholas has both too few and too many. On the one hand, it’s an extended one-liner. Vinkler plays an embittered Irish theater critic who falls in with vampires–and the playwright gives the similarities between the two breeds a thorough workout. (This thread could be summed up in Dorothy Parker’s witticism when Calvin Coolidge died: “How could they tell?”) It’s not that critics can’t take a joke; but in a piece long enough to justify an intermission, there should be more than one.

At the same time McPherson expects us to empathize with his character and take seriously his meditations on many subjects: how hard it is to find love by looking for it, how long it takes to register that something’s lost forever, even how much it costs to get the glorious benefits of giving in to sexual desire. Vinkler manages to secure that empathy because he’s so committed to his world, so completely immersed not only in the critic but in all the other characters he plays. But McPherson in his serious mode has so much to say that he piles story upon story, flashback upon flashback. Halfway through the second act, even Vinkler’s phenomenal performance can’t hold our attention completely. Listening is like being trapped on an airplane with a seatmate whose wit and charm ultimately lose the battle with his garrulousness.

Vinkler is a generous actor: his strong performance as King Lear at Chicago Shakespeare Theater nonetheless left room for others to shine. But the chance to see him by himself, undiluted, in the full flower of his talent is not to be missed.

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