I’ve written here about my grandma Goldberg before. She was the family aphorist who used to say “Marry a Christian, one day she’ll wake up and call you ‘dirty Jew.” And “Scratch a goy, you’ll find an anti-Semite.” And of course, “Go to sleep with a young shiksa, wake up with an old goya.” (No, not the Spanish painter. She didn’t know from Spanish painters.)
Grandma Goldberg was prepared for any amount of treachery from non-Jews. But I think even she might’ve been thrown by the incident that kicks off Peter Ackerman’s 1999 comedy Things You Shouldn’t Say Past Midnight, onstage now at Windy City Playhouse in a smooth, amusing production directed by William Brown.
Ben (Jew) and Nancy (shiksa) are discovered in flagrante in Ben’s New York apartment. The sex is frenetic and a little bit violent. They’re clearly into it and each other, moving passionately from one position to the next. Nancy keeps up a patter that gets more and more urgent until she reaches her orgasm and blurts—well, I don’t want to spoil the delicious creepiness of the phrase, but it combines ecstatic intimacy with a crude ethnic slur and puts Ben completely off his rhythm.
Grandma would’ve found the incongruity of it bewildering, and—even though he considers himself 100 percent assimilated (“You might as well call me Chip”)—so does Ben. His initially tactful attempts to broach the subject meet with incomprehension, so he confronts Nancy. A big 3 AM quarrel ensues, and she’s out of there.
Meanwhile, Nancy’s best friend, Grace, has her own bedtime issues. Now follow this closely: Her therapist, Mark, has introduced her to his older brother, Gene, who makes his living as a hit man. (It’s kind of sweet, actually. Gene’s murders paid for Mark’s degree in a helping profession.) Grace is a sex-for-sex’s-sake live wire, thrilled by the prospect of making it with a certifiable tough guy. But Gene gets his fill of bodies at work. He wants the intellectual frisson that he believes artsy, college-educated Grace can provide. So they’re at their own 3 AM impasse—Gene hoping for learned conversation, Grace willing to settle for a few grunts—when an overwrought Nancy arrives, having, in a triumph of denial, decided that Ben’s real problem is that he’s gay. Grace phones therapist Mark, sure he can counsel Nancy. But her call interrupts Mark’s own tryst with Donald, an old gay guy—the older the better being Mark’s motto. (He refers to Donald, respectfully, as “Mr. Abramson.”) Eventually Ben finds his way on to the line, and the rest of the piece consists of a marathon six-way phone conversation.
So there you have it: three couples, three beds, three cases of opposites both attracting and repelling. The classic symmetry of farce.
The playwright makes it fun for the most part, but doesn’t challenge himself or his audience beyond the early provocations provided by Nancy’s outburst, Gene’s job, and Mr. Abramson’s age. When Reader writer Brian Nemtusak reviewed the Chemically Imbalanced Comedy version of Things You Shouldn’t Say back in 2004, he complained that the play ends just “when it starts getting interesting.” And he was exactly right. Ackerman sets up all kinds of potentially knotty problems (I mean, a hit man?) and then just lets them lie there, their weirdest implications all but uninvestigated. The proceedings end with admissions that don’t ring true, conciliations that come too easily, and a cute, ain’t-it-the-truth little joke. Settling for a pleasantly ribald evening, Ackerman’s opus lands far short of its savage potential. Indeed, he may be too good-hearted to devise a truly nasty sex farce: Ackerman went on to pen a sweet children’s book called The Lonely Phone Booth.
Nemtusak’s 2004 review also thanked a “charismatic cast” for saving the show he saw, and much the same thing happens this time around. Offered in Windy City’s cabaretlike space—where swivel chairs allow some patrons their own personal in-the-round experience, twisting in turn toward each of the three bedrooms that make up Kevin Depinet’s set—the production is confidently endearing. Shane Kenyon is especially so as killer Gene, vibrating physically and emotionally between the thug he is and the sensitive soul he longs to cultivate—though how he can maintain his compunctions under assault from Patrese McClain’s insistently randy Grace is a great mystery. Similarly, Chris Sheard shifts easily between boy-toy and psychologist modes as Mark. Emily Tate and Peter Meadows are nicely mismatched as Nancy and Ben. And then there’s Robert Spencer’s Mr. Abramson: a very peculiar, supremely successful throwback to borscht belt inflections. Picture a gay, mostly horizontal Myron Cohen. v