Playwrights’ Center

Last fall the Playwrights’ Center inaugurated a theatrical serial, appearing in weekly installments, called The Cafe With No Name. Though hardly perfect, it had an eccentric wit and ragged spontaneity all but missing from most of the Playwrights’ Center’s other recent attempts at theater. Written by a team who had the unenviable task of coming up with a new script each week, The Cafe With No Name concerned a handful of screwy characters (including a giant talking banana) who had various bizarre adventures as they hung out at the cafe.

Judging by the couple of early episodes I saw, and the scripts for several earlier episodes I read, consistency was not a hobgoblin that haunted these writers’ minds. The tone and style of the shows changed radically week by week, sometimes scene by scene. One episode was a parody of pop 60s spy movies. Another attempted to fuse theater of the absurd with plot lines that could have been lifted from an afternoon soap. The writing was similarly uneven: many of the gags fell flat, and a good third of the material failed the “who cares?” test. Still, the actors’ committed silliness and the productions’ breathless cinematic pace made up for a lot.

I didn’t see the later episodes in the series (which lasted until the end of December), so I have no idea whether The Cafe With No Name became stranger and less coherent as it progressed or the writers managed to find and maintain a consistent style and tone. I would suspect the latter, judging by the greater maturity and stylistic control of the writing in the first episode of the Playwrights’ Center’s current go at serial theater, The Raccoon Agenda. (Louis H. Anders III, who had a hand in many of the Cafe With No Name episodes, is a coauthor here.)

“Episode One: Flicker Vertigo” introduces the main characters, among them a British spy hero, Guy Merlin; his Emma Peel-like Yankee partner, Chera Locke; and their archenemy Weisshaupt, who speaks with an Eastern European accent though his name is more evocative of the Nazi spies that Captain America, Little Orphan Annie, and Noel Coward fought during World War II. The world described in this first episode will be more or less familiar to anyone who grew up watching The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Avengers, or any of the other even more fantastic 60s spy thrillers. Weisshaupt and his band of ninja assassins work for some unnamed foreign power, while Merlin and Locke represent the two untainted democracies standing between the free world and utter darkness.

These characters live in a strange parallel universe where everyone talks and dresses as if it were the 90s but the political situation is more like that facing the world in 1965. Certainly the production’s tongue-in- cheek spirit is very much in line with that of such 60s comedies as Get Smart and Batman, though the hectic pace is most reminiscent of The Monkees.

For writers Anders and Brendan Baber, the gag is at least as important as the story, and no plot point is so essential it can’t be delayed for a silly one-liner (“You didn’t come here to shoot the breeze, and besides you’d need special bullets”) or better still, the reappearance of a running gag. Weisshaupt’s ninjas, for example, never make an appearance without engaging in long, digressive, self- congratulatory conversations about how silently and swiftly they work. As in The Cafe With No Name, many of these gags misfire. But once again the pace of the piece–which Anders directed–often saves it.

Then too, this time around much less in the script needs saving. Not only is the writing stronger, the acting seems smarter and crisper–no one appears out of place or incapable of performing Anders’s and Baber’s comedy. In particular, Dale Goulding and Laurie Flanigan as Merlin and Locke seem as natural together as Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg. Likewise Yasen Peyankov, in his long black leather coat and unidentified Eastern European accent, makes a wonderful villain. I have to say that this 40-minute episode passed all too quickly.


Playwrights’ Center and Transient Theatre

I wish I could say the same for the two-hour Tracks. Unfortunately this ill-conceived, badly written, unevenly directed effort fits far better into the Playwrights’ Center’s tradition of dismal, dull plays–such as the tedious White Dwarf and the mind-numbingly awful Fragments From the Permanent Collection–than The Raccoon Agenda does. Written by Christopher Busiel and staged promenade-theater style throughout the building the Playwrights’ Center shares with Transient Theatre, Tracks is a collection of revue-style musical selections and sketches that Busiel and director Jim MacDowell try to pass off as experimental theater (the center’s recorded message describes it as a “revolutionary concept in the theatrical experience”).

Busiel and MacDowell never bothered to come up with a rationale for staging the sketches all over the building, and there is nothing new in this rather ordinary if wildly eclectic collection of scenes. Busiel’s observations about Chicago life are pretty obvious–crowded els are uncomfortable, homeless people are not treated well, empty train stations can be dangerous places. And the sketches, many of which build toward some supposedly poignant moment, are either utterly baffling or painfully predictable. Few of them are as real or as entertaining as the one in which three secretaries discuss the way they robbed their employer, a Loop bank, as they ride the el to O’Hare.

Even Busiel’s attempts to add whimsy to his sketches–by stealing characters (one sketch stars Will Elder’s 1940s comic-book hero, the Spirit) or parodying 19th-century melodramas (Busiel actually repeats the tiresome lines “You must pay the rent!” and “But I can’t pay the rent!”)–fall flat. Busiel seems to have no idea when a story is complete, and so either cuts the sketch off too early or lets it run on too long.

Which is a shame, because Transient Theatre has certainly held up its end of the bargain, providing a strong 20-member cast. Unfortunately, even a talented folksinger like Chris Farrell, who sings every time things get slow, cannot save this production.