Stage Left Theatre

One of the hallmarks of modern drama is an emphasis on character over plot. For modern playwrights, plot is the footprints left behind by the characters, not the path they follow.

This preoccupation with character has limits, however, as the work of two young Chicago playwrights demonstrates. Both have written plays that revolve around quirky characters, and both have discovered that quirky characters, like a good plot, can arouse enough suspense to hold an audience’s attention–for a time. But without a plot to guide their actions, these characters, despite their quirks, eventually become tedious.

The Light at the Peak of the Bric-a-Brac Hills is a one-man show written and performed by Dick Costolo, who shows flashes of brilliance. His show, unfortunately, is so unfocused that its 90-minute running time seems self-indulgent.

Costolo plays several characters but spends most of his time onstage as a deranged airport baggage handler who has dedicated his life to misrouting luggage. “Far too many people out there think they’re important,” he explains to the audience, while brandishing a small toy scimitar. “I want bad things to happen to them. One day I thought, they all take airplanes. . . . What good is it for important people to go from point A to point B if their important things go from point A to point C?”

The baggage handler rants incessantly about “the governor,” a figment of his imagination whom he nevertheless hates and has fantasies about killing. “Governor, you’re a black hole with wings,” he says during one of his diatribes. “Governor, you have lice in your soul.”

The title comes from the character’s “telescope dream,” in which he constructs a ladder out of boxes and briefcases and garment bags and climbs up to the Hubble telescope orbiting earth. From up there he can see another planet “where everybody is attractive and nobody asks you a lot of questions.” The planet is populated by beavers, each capable of speaking one unique sentence–such as “I don’t like that pattern on you.” Through the telescope this character also can see the Bric-a-Brac Hills, “where appliances and home furnishings grow. If you need a washing machine, you can go and pick one there.”

Such whimsy has its charms, but isn’t in itself dramatic. To be effective, Costolo’s character must unfold like a plot, provide a sense of movement and change. As it stands, Bric-a-Brac Hills remains more of a case study than a play.


Shattered Globe Theatre

at the Project

The same is true of Big Al, by Bryan Goluboff, a late-night offering of the Shattered Globe Theatre. But this play is so brief (less than 30 minutes) that it doesn’t have time to become tiresome.

Like Bric-a-Brac Hills, Big Al revolves around a slightly deranged character–in this case, an aspiring screenwriter named Leo who is obsessed with Al Pacino. As Leo explains to Ricky, his best friend and collaborator, he was contemplating suicide and went to a restaurant in New York’s Soho for one last meal. There he overheard a woman talking about the work she does for Pacino. Leo struck up a conversation with her and got her to promise to look at any script he might submit with a good role in it for Pacino. The play begins in the middle of the night, with Leo calling Ricky over to tell him all this, and to insist, in increasingly forceful terms, that they begin work immediately on a screenplay.

Chip O’Neil, as Leo, throws himself into the role with gleeful abandon and gets lots of laughs with his loud and passionate devotion to “Big Al.” Chris Olson, as Ricky, deftly transforms his reaction to Leo from good-natured tolerance to terror. But even though the screenplay these two characters dream up is wonderfully ridiculous and the tension they generate is gripping, they are not a sufficient replacement for a plot. In fact, they remain interesting only because they promise a plot, and since Big Al is so short, they never get a chance to deliver.