Stark Raving Ensemble

at Cafe Voltaire

One of the great paradoxes of theater today is that the artistic success of a show seems to be inversely proportional to the size of its budget. It’s gotten so that when I walk into a theater and see a big glittering set I instinctively brace myself for the worst. By contrast, nothing gives me more hope for Chicago theater than the many excellent, energetic, intelligent shows being put on for almost nothing in some of the least attractive performing spaces in the city.

Stark Raving Ensemble’s extremely low budget production of The Indian Wants the Bronx–with its dirt-poor minimal set in Cafe Voltaire’s cold, musty, unswept basement–is a case in point. I would be surprised if the three actors who put together this revival of Israel Horovitz’s disturbing 1968 play, about a pair of delinquents who torment a poor East Indian lost somewhere in New York, make enough after expenses each night to buy themselves three bowls of chili upstairs. Yet they throw themselves so completely into their roles that I never doubted for a moment that once Murph (Todd Tesen) and Joey (Mitchel R. McElya) finished with poor Gupta (Michael John Stewart) we might be next.

I’m sure part of this is Horovitz’s powerful script, which retains the feel of coldly observed truth 24 years after it first opened off-Broadway (with a young Al Pacino in the role of Murph). Horovitz’s dead-on dialogue still sounds like it was transcribed from life (except the word “frigging,” which I’ve never heard outside euphemistic dialogue). Murph and Joey seem every bit as aimless and empty as the lost kids who roam the streets today, and Gupta’s frustratingly passive response to their assaults still seems on the mark.

But Horovitz’s brutal play is not actor-proof; in the hands of hesitant, inhibited, or inexperienced actors it could be death. Happily, this is not the case here. Tesen, McElya, and Stewart display the kind of intensity I associate more with the tougher films of Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets, Goodfellas) or with Steppenwolf in its earlier, hungrier incarnation than with the significantly safer, subdued work of today’s Equity companies. When Murph went crazy with anger near the end of the play and started throwing around a garbage can, I thought for sure someone in the audience was going to get hit. This is easily the most powerful show I’ve seen since Cactus Theatre’s incredible production of Hurly Burly last year.


Synergy Theatre Company

Less successful is Synergy Theatre’s belabored production of Terrence McNally’s annoyingly flawed comedy Dunelawn. This nearly plotless one-act was originally produced in the early 70s in tandem with another McNally one-act, Ravenswood, under the title “Bad Habits.” The two plays concern the contrasting philosophies of two very different mental-health facilities: Ravenswood, presided over by the ebullient Dr. Pepper, is so permissive that the patients are allowed to do anything they want. Dunelawn, lorded over by the enigmatic but inflexible Dr. Toynbee, is the sort of totalitarian asylum Ken Kesey attacked in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Of the two plays, Ravenswood is funnier on the page and, judging from the reviews of the Obie Award-winning 1974 production, on the stage. I also suspect that Dunelawn loses some of its punch when it’s the only play on the bill. After all, there’s only so much humor one can squeeze out of a plotless one-act in which every patient’s bad habits are treated with the same therapy: being kept in a round-the-clock drugged state.

I kept hoping McNally would reach for something more than a statement that Dr. Toynbee’s doped-up patients can’t really be called “cured” of their chemical dependency, but he doesn’t. Instead, he spends his time making comic points that are painfully obvious (patients often feel safer in asylums; sometimes care givers are sicker than their patients) or patently offensive (all Nurse Hedges needs to turn from a mouse to an assertive woman is to be forcibly “seduced” by the animalistic grounds keeper Bruno).

It doesn’t help that of Dan Ruben’s eight-member cast only Mary Booker, Tracey Atkins, and David Ward have a clue about how to perform comedy. The others either overact like hell–Jim Cantafio’s problem–or make such a conscious effort to “act funny” that they aren’t.