Victory Gardens

Today’s aspiring young playwrights were born after television became a fixture in American homes. They grew up with sitcoms, soap operas, and Saturday-morning cartoons. Sitting in front of the TV for thousands, maybe even tens of thousands of hours, they absorbed the conventions of network television–inane dialogue, one-dimensional characters, superficial plots.

Sure enough, those conventions find their way into the work of these playwrights. And they virtually define the work of James Sherman, author of The Escape Artist and two other plays that have been produced by the Victory Gardens Theater.

The dialogue in The Escape Artist revolves around the smart-aleck response of the TV sitcom: “My therapist thinks I’m crazy for even talking to you,” says Ellen, the ex-lover of the title character. “If you weren’t crazy, you wouldn’t need a therapist,” he replies. “If I didn’t talk to you, I wouldn’t be crazy,” she retorts.

Sherman’s plots are like those of made-for-TV movies–they deal oh-so-earnestly with an issue or a concept. In The God of Isaac, for example, the protagonist is a Jew who is indifferent to Judaism, but who is compelled to reconsider his identity when the Nazis announce they’re going to march through Skokie, his hometown.

Sherman’s characters are all standard-issue figures who can be dressed up and inserted into various situations. The Victory Gardens’ poster for his Mr. 80% showed a male paper doll in his underwear surrounded by different outfits he could wear. The image suggested that the title character, who could only give about 80 percent of himself to a relationship with a woman, was a chameleon who changed to suit the woman he was with, but I always wondered if the poster artist was also making an astute comment on Sherman’s writing formula.

The influence of TV has peaked in The Escape Artist, which is little more than a contrivance that allows Sherman, who plays the lead and is an amateur magician, to perform a few tricks. (Sherman has always played the lead in his plays. But that is a separate problem.)

The plot is built on a question already explored on Donahue and other talk shows: why are so many men reluctant to get involved in a permanent relationship with a woman? The title has a double meaning. The main character is John Giovanni, a master magician who has learned to escape from straitjackets, ropes, chains, handcuffs, and other constraining devices with help from the greatest escape artist of them all, Harry Houdini, whose spirit appears before the Great Giovanni on request to give instruction and encouragement.

But Giovanni’s real name is Jonathan Ginsberg. Giovanni/Ginsberg is also a master at escaping from the most intimidating constraint of all–intimacy. Instead of getting involved with one woman, he prefers to seduce the shapely “box jumpers” who serve as his assistants onstage. When he began to fall in love with Ellen–a bright, talented director who helped him devise some of his most spectacular stage stunts–he ditched her at the airport.

The influence of television is spread through all of this, but the problem is not just that TV gimmicks are being imitated. A recent study of the effects of television on people revealed an interesting phenomenon: children–and adults–who saw an animated version of a story on television tended to remember about as many details as those who had the story read to them. But those who watched the animated version had a much harder time drawing inferences from the material. They relied almost exclusively on what was “out there” on the TV screen; the other group referred to their own experiences. For example, the children recognized that an ax used by one of the characters was heavy, but the TV watchers deduced this from the way the character struggled to pick it up, while those who listened to the story would say things like, “It’s hard for me to hold an ax–it’s way too heavy.”

The Escape Artist doesn’t seem to draw on the author’s own feelings and beliefs. It remains “out there”–something the author manipulated and shaped at a distance, untouched by his own experience. Sure, it appears to be autobiographical, especially with the author in the lead role. Sherman also speaks earnestly about “commitment phobia” in the Victory Gardens newsletter. (His theory is that men who don’t commit might just be wise enough to know they’re not ready for a major attachment. They keep getting out of relationships until they feel ready to sustain one.)

But this play has no heart, no emotion. Although it may deal with experiences familiar to the author, Sherman seems unable to get inside the feelings and experience them over again through his characters. At its best, The Escape Artist is slick and glib, but never provocative or sincere, like the best theater.

Part of the problem is Sherman’s flat, emotionless performance as Giovanni. While he escapes from a straitjacket with aplomb and makes his beautiful assistants appear out of nowhere, Sherman just cant conjure up a personality for his character. Perhaps if the role were played by an actor who could embody the inner conflicts supposedly tearing this guy apart, the play would snap to life. As Sherman portrays him, Giovanni lacks the pizzazz of a world-famous magician. He doesn’t even seem very interested in seducing women.

Beyond this, director Dennis Zacek does a fine job with what he has to work with. Guy Barile looks properly dapper and intense as the spirit of Houdini, who began appearing before Jonathan when the aspiring magician was still a boy. Petrea Burchard is smart and sexy as Ellen, who turns for revenge and ends up giving Giovanni yet another great idea for his act. Barbara Alyn Woods, who plays Donna, had better be careful–she is so good at playing blond air heads that she may never get any other kind of role. Elizabeth Hanley and Anna Markin create vivid personalities in their brief roles as the box jumpers Giovanni tries to seduce.

It’s probably not fair to blame television for the shortcomings of The Escape Artist. Bad plays have been around a long time. But TV seems to have a particularly pernicious influence on today’s playwrights. Network programs are built on stereotypes and stock responses. Genuine creativity is discouraged because it doesn’t provide the easy, passive viewing that attracts large audiences. If a playwright’s brain is a form of computer, then it is subject to the rule that governs all computers: garbage in, garbage out.