Webster Circle Theater

at Chicago Cooperative Stage

A lot of moments matter in The Wings of Moony Fishbein, which tells of a 16-year-old boy’s rapid coming-of-age in 1949 Chicago. There’s a wealth of period detail about early TV, Borden’s ice cream, and Riverview. So it’s sad that the crude, often ridiculous melodrama of the play dooms this staging.

Clearly Chicago playwright Ron Mark has been strongly–if not unduly–influenced by domestic heart-warmers like Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs and Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing. In Wings, Mark tries to pour into one very crisis-ridden Fourth of July weekend all the hopes and fears of an embattled west-side Jewish family. To do this, he contrives to unleash more slam-bang catastrophes than any play has a right to. The result is that the sentimental characters are barely developed. The hard-working actors in this inaugural Webster Circle Theater production are seldom asked to do more than weep, scream, or get all soft inside–all of which happens a lot too easily to be real.

Moony Fishbein, our teen protag-onist and narrator, is a dreamer who hangs model airplanes from the ceiling of his bedroom and hopes to become a fighter pilot. Moony’s dream is all the more fervent because he’s crippled, his legs paralyzed by polio during the postwar epidemic. Moony now walks with crutches and leg braces and wonders if he’ll ever get to prove himself a hero.

His handicap aside, the Moony we see is one tough kid. He can certainly hold his own in the family arguments that erupt at the drop of a cue. Ben, Moony’s store-owner father, is a lazy, self-pitying self-declared failure, both in business and with his son; he’s a collector of bad luck who fears he’s invisible to everyone around him. Sophie, Moony’s erratically hysterical mother, spats with her know-everything sister Nellie, a kvetch artist who nags Sophie with crackbrained cures for Moony and harangues Ben with a harpy’s ardor.

But when Nellie is alone with her nephew, the stereotyped character dissolves into a very warm person. (In fact the quiet moments are the best here.) Nellie shares stories with Moony–telling him, for example, how she was suddenly abandoned by her husband when she looked admiringly at a muscle man–and gives him tender pep talks about taking charge of his life: “A real man stands up with his heart.”

Moony’s main confidant is Roxie, the gawky tomboy who lives next door, a confused bobby-soxer who’s sure her budding body is ugly. Billie is the other girl in Moony’s life. With an undeserved bad reputation, she’s the target of sexual harassment by the play’s bad guy, Joey. An arsonist and mob enforcer, Joey’s idea of kindness is to use an open fist on his victim. When not mauling Billie, Joey likes to kick around Moony’s friend Hobby, a once brilliant, now shell-shocked 32-year-old veteran. In one of the play’s many crises, Hobby’s dying dad begs Ben to give him the money to send his son to a California hospital.

Certainly no one can accuse Mark of avoiding conflict. Before our two hours are up, we witness several overwrought screamfests and knock-down squabbles: between Moony and Ben, between Nellie and Sophie, between Moony and Roxie, Joey and Hobby, Joey and Billie, Nellie and Ben, Joey and Ben, Hobby’s father and Ben, and Hobby and his inner demons. This show should have rounds, not acts.

More often than not, these histrionic bouts come out of nowhere and fail to convince. The confused ending brings all the calamities simultaneously to a boil, the characters’ traumas purged by so many instances of instant heroism. It’s so messy, jumpy, and incoherent, it’s as if the action had been fast-forwarded on a giant VCR.

What nearly saves Wings are the isolated moments of truth that show between the soap bubbles. As Moony, a sort of west-side Huck Finn, Paul Hewitt grounds the boy’s search for valor in a solid, broken-bricks realism that’s pure Chicago–a promising beginning for a young actor. He’s never better than in the aching encounters with his aunt, Jennifer Halliday’s thick-skinned, soft hearted Nellie, with Rhonda Musak’s gangly but poignant Roxie, and with Alexandra Webb’s Billie, the wiser older woman.

Kate Kisner as Sophie underlines the ugly toll of living with an oaf. And judging from Martin Arons’s cheap wooden rages as Ben, acting with him is no thrill either. Knight Houghton does much better in the unsubtle role of Hobby’s father, Mr. Spiegel, the human crying towel. Geoffrey MacKinnon writhes well as the “stinking mummy” Hobby, and Scott Mosenson’s Joey is pure poison.

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