Chicago Dramatists Workshop

There’s a refreshing honesty about short plays. They don’t pretend to have enough stuff for two hours–they just set down characters and see what happens. Even if lack of inspiration makes them too long, no matter how short they may be, you can’t accuse them of excessive ambition. With a similar modest integrity, the Chicago Dramatists Workshop just opened their new River West space, a comfortable and well-designed 86-seat theater, with a two-evening showcase of five short plays, three plays in Program A and two in Program B.

The showcase is a fine idea, but the results of this first venture are mixed indeed. Only one play–Rebuttals, by Joseph Fedorko–is an unqualified success. The others have too little to say, or say it and don’t show it, or lose their path along the way, or know a lot about their subject but don’t have the characters to get it across. At least they’re staged pretty persuasively–these playwrights can’t say that this first production did them in, and several got better than they deserved .

Opening Program A is Extras, S.L. Daniels’s offhand tribute to the anonymous supernumeraries who fill in in films. Seeking a chance at this reflected glory, five actors have arisen early, hoping to become a blur in some cinematic background. A bored waitress (Daryl Heller) seeks a glamorous reason to walk down a street. A devoted fan of the film’s star (Todd Thurman) wants a glimpse of his idol (Kristie Berger), then feels let down when he discovers she’s human. A housepainter (Doreen Dawson) arrives in 60s garb (she misread the casting call, which was for people under 60). Finally Bruce, a veteran extra (Eric Winzenried), teaches a friend (Richard Duslack) the fine points (look self-effacing but wear something that will stand out, so when the film is finally released you can find yourself in the mob).

But the shoot is canceled, everyone leaves, and then we see how desperate Bruce was for a piece of celluloid immortality.

Sherry Narens directs with a fitting realism, and Winzenried gets Bruce’s dead-end pathos well enough, but the script is too static, too much a still life, to rise to its occasion–a kind of Chorus Line spin-off.

Narens’s own contribution, Parktalk, is an exercise in absurdist banter. Berger and Wayne Brown play a daffy Burns-and-Allen-style couple who engage in a progressively more preposterous conversation–about the relationship of pigeons and mosquitoes, whether lions worship doves, and the Goethe statue in Lincoln Park. Was Goethe really a bodybuilder? Did he have an eagle? Narens escalates the idiot-talk with non sequiturs, circular arguments, and crossed signals. Brown and Berger hit a good vaudevillian rhythm for their wacky, point-counterpoint exchanges. But Parktalk ends weakly, and only after playing its precious game a little bit too long.

Program A’s most ambitious–and confused–work is Richard Sullivan’s The Wake. In this play, a corpse tries to teach his squabbling survivors a little love of life before it’s too late. Sullivan assembles a mean-spirited, contentious family of mourners in a 1964 funeral parlor, has them bitch about who gets what, then in Twilight Zone fashion introduces a mysterious stranger, a bum who says he knew the deceased and intends to give the eulogy.

The unknown bum, it seems, has established a long-term mystical relationship with the sardonic undertaker. They collaborate with the corpse to somehow strip the family of the money they’re fighting over (it all gets muddled here), since the legacy is preventing them from starting a new life. In the end the bum gives a pep-talk eulogy that mellows the mourners.

That’s it–and it’s not much, considering that it takes over an hour to wander through the story. No doubt Sullivan and his metaphors mean well (whatever they do mean), but even a loud and feeling staging by Russ Tutterow (the Dramatists Workshop’s artistic director) can’t cure The Wake of its clutter and lack of focus. You can, however, savor more fine work from Winzenried as the stranger, and from Dan Walsh as the earnest corpse.

Program B moves from the bland to the near-brilliant. The former is Penn Goertzel’s Bergy Bits, a collection of four far-too-casual short plays that take their name from chunks of ice too small to pass for icebergs. The title fits; these are slices of life too thin to nourish, the vignettes can’t pass for plays; and they stand or fall by the performances, not the writing.

The bits loosely deal with people whose paths led them to Alaska (like the author, who worked with Perseverance Theatre in Juneau). In “My Ma,” an overprotective mother plans her son’s life. In “You Know What I Like About Alaska, Pop?” another son, ecstatic with the dream of running off to the Great White North, takes a nervous farewell of his dying father; after he leaves, the father quits his coma to wish him well. In “A Short Sexual History of a California Boy” (it’s not short enough), a man launches into a tedious description of his love life, from the Mexican whore who initiated him in 1963 to the woman in a laundromat who finally cures him of his failure to commit.

In the third–and best–bit, “Two Poets on the Alcan Highway,” a driver picks up a hitchhiker, who at first awkwardly rhapsodizes over passing vistas: “Sharp peaks!” Soon both unleash a hymn to the Alaskan wilderness that sounds like some demented travelogue: “This country swallows Souls”; it’s “a temple of immense absence”; “I eat Alaska’s air.” Pure literary fantasy, this bit has a sassy exuberance that lifts it.

Tutterow’s staging gives Goertzel’s half-characters a zest that is best seen in the hammy byplay between the “poets” (Winzenried and Walsh). But the unfocused Bergy Bits should be returned to the sea.

The near-brilliant piece is Rebuttals, Joseph Fedorko’s cunning sendup of high school debating. Fedorko knows–and shows us–how amateur forensics feeds on an unenlightened rage to compete, how sophistic logic chopping often treats the truth as an afterthought (just as in the courts).

Facing a decisive tournament, the “affirmative” team consists of James (Jon Mozes), an oily dweeb who practically lives in his file cards, and regular Rick (Scot Casey), who finds himself increasingly disgusted with this “self-righteous twit” and his obsession with winning. As fate has it, the “negative” team turns out to be Karen Anderson (Laura Hamilton), the girl Rick just worked up the nerve to ask out, and the dreaded “royal prince of debate,” Jeff Belmont (Robert Bundy). Belmont is an arrogant preppie and nearly invincible logician from the “Rockefeller Academy” whose only task in life, it seems, is to choose between Yale and Harvard.

Initially frozen with fear, James soon works himself into a sputtering craving to beat the dreaded Belmont. But Rick, who now craves love talk, not stats (“She gives great first negatives,” he sighs), has lost his killer edge.

At this point I expected Karen and Rick, realizing that love counts more than scoring points from file cards, to throw the match. But Fedorko is after bigger game. The debate–over regulating multinational corporations–becomes a hilarious clash of styles, a “test of ideas” as Rick puts it, to see whether demolishing your opponent’s arguments can be victory enough.

The imperious Belmont, armed with a lap-top “Master Debater 2000” computer and a mirthless laugh, spits out refutations–and at first James unwisely tries to beat him at his own game. When James does acknowledge the real stakes (“Debate doesn’t last forever”), the moment of truth almost rivals the bicycle race in Breaking Away.

Though slow to crank up his plot, Fedorko does well by his characters, who at strategic moments speak their thoughts. Best of all, the playwright sets up sharp stereotypes, then makes us guess whether he’ll confirm or explode them.

The whiplash script, full of reversals and snappy exchanges, is matched by some detailed direction from Sandra Bykowski. Mozes’s vengeful nerd doesn’t just depend on oil-slick hair, thick glasses, and a pursed pout; James’s whine comes from deep within. As the forensic lovers, Casey and Hamilton play well off their characters’ needs, especially in a sudden groping that takes over a rebuttal–cross-examination become lovers’ tryst.

But the wickedest work on this stage is Bundy’s insufferably confident, smoothly sneering Belmont. His snob exudes a nasty, Quayle-like refusal to question unearned privilege–whatever comeuppance he gets will not be enough. Bundy’s bastard is a guy you’ll love to hate.

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