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Seven Dates With Seven Writers

Bathsheba Productions

at Chicago Dramatists

The Critics

Cave 76

at Chicago Dramatists

By Albert Williams

Write about what you know: it’s sage advice for novices, but it carries a trap. Writers are generally self-absorbed anyway–no one lives more completely in his or her head–and thus can easily confuse insularity with profundity. Transforming their lives into an alternate reality, they may imagine hidden depths that don’t always make their way into the work. Audiences may laugh at and even identify with a thinly veiled comic portrait of a writer’s trials and tribulations with family, friends, lovers, and colleagues, but amusement doesn’t necessarily translate into insight.

Seven Dates With Seven Writers and The Critics, running as part of a loosely structured “Writers on Writers Series” in Chicago Dramatists’ cozy black-box theater, are mostly funny and sometimes hilarious, but they aren’t nearly as penetrating or provocative as they aim to be. Playwrights Paula Kamen and Adam Langer pepper their one-acts with neatly phrased, sometimes caustic jokes and sharply etched though shallow caricatures of writers–including themselves. Both are almost surely drawing on their own experiences and observations, altering and exaggerating them for parodic effect. The well-acted results are often amusing; but as the plays wind down to confused climaxes, their cartoonish jokiness undermines the authors’ efforts to illuminate their subjects.

Best known for her book Feminist Fatale: Voices From the “Twenty-something” Generation Explore the Future of the “Women’s Movement,” Kamen is a smart, sassy humorist with an appealing streak of self-deprecation; posted proudly next to the box office is a collection of her rejection letters from publications ranging from the New York Times and Glamour to Mother Jones and the Reader. (As producer as well as playwright, Kamen is offering half-price tickets to anyone bringing his or her own rejection slips to post.) She’s inexperienced as a writer for the stage–a previous play, about the 1970s underground abortion-referral collective Jane, floundered in controversy over authorship credit and was never produced–and it shows. Seven Dates With Seven Writers is almost naively simple in structure, a set of monologues spoken by various boyfriends of the heroine, an aspiring novelist named Rhoda. Though Rhoda (played in a state of peeved confusion by Belinda Berdes) introduces each vignette as one in a series of memories, the focus is on the guys Rhoda dated in the hope that a fellow writer would help her find her personal and literary identity.

These are the kind of men who should be seen once and not heard from again, and Seven Dates With Seven Writers milks their odious eccentricities for every ounce of vengeful humor. A. Wright Rushoff is a slick, suntanned screenwriter who wants Rhoda to proofread his self-important stage play. Handsome as a Ken doll and almost as smart, Rushoff is just full of irresistible compliments. “Constantly having sex with drop-dead size-4 women is dull,” he tells Rhoda. “It’s so refreshing to go out with someone who obviously doesn’t care about her appearance.” Next up is Jason, a slovenly cyberspace cadet always hot on the trail of the next trend. “Advancing technology and getting the story before anyone else–that’s real journalism,” he declares. After him comes Martin Garcia Cohen, a contributing editor for “Oppressed Worker” magazine who guilt-trips Rhoda for living in a Lincoln Park high-rise. “I love Uptown,” he rhapsodizes. “It’s the only place where you can walk around talking to yourself and no one notices.”

At the opposite end of the social-awareness spectrum is corporate copywriter Dean Dean, who churns out Mission 2000 statements for Fortune 500 companies. Dejected because his ex-girlfriend “started outsourcing for affection,” Dean uses a growth chart to show Rhoda his plans for their relationship; his market share quickly drops to nothing. Enter Rickie Roscoe, a playwright turned improv performer. “That’s what writing’s all about–no prior thought or planning!…In every show we have at least half a dozen references to anal sex. It’s in our mission statement.” Raunchy Rickie is displaced by poet Peter, a gentle bohemian whose seeming empathy hides inhibition and defensiveness. At first attracted to Rhoda by her interest in his work, Peter comes to resent her for trying to convince him to submit it. “The people who get published aren’t necessarily the best writers,” proclaims the hypercritical hypocrite. The cure for Peter’s self-righteous sensitivity is a date with Larry, an alternative-press freelancer and sleazy sexual athlete whose Irish-Catholic background, he insists, makes him the perfect match for a “Jewess.” “I’m everything your parents and doorman fear for you,” he leers, hoping to entice Rhoda to become his very own “Bathsheba” (also the name of Kamen’s production company, by the way).

Under Janel Winter’s savvy direction, Kamen’s wickedly funny though often obvious character sketches prove reliable vehicles for the show’s six skillful, quirkily sexy actors. Jason K. Martin as A. Wright Rushoff, Marc Collins as Jason, Bill Ryan as Martin Garcia Cohen, Jeremy Engelbrecht as Dean Dean, Tanner Lagasca as Rickie, Robert Dassie as Peter, and especially the raffish Scott Silbor as Larry are vivid monologuists whose well-chosen movement and vocal inflections suggest both their characters’ attitudes and the insecurities behind them. (Silbor–“specially trained by the Actors Gymnasium,” a press release notes–also does a trapeze routine to symbolize his all-night one-nighter with Rhoda.)

But all too quickly one senses a certain smugness in the show; the men are clay pigeons Kamen sets up for the express purpose of shooting them down. If these guys are really so bad, you can’t help asking, what does that say about Rhoda–or, inevitably, about Kamen? But both the author and her presumptive surrogate remain coyly elusive, hidden behind the cartoons she’s created. On its own each vignette is a delight–actors looking for new monologues and casting directors looking for new actors would both do well to check this show out. But Seven Dates With Seven Writers doesn’t add up to much more than an extended comedy routine.

If Kamen is a novice playwright, Adam Langer is a theatrical veteran–a regular critic for the Reader and the author of several plays, including The Blank Page, a satire of the alternative media suggested by Langer’s stint as editor of the defunct SubNation magazine, and Film Flam, a parody of the indie film industry inspired by Langer’s experiences turning The Blank Page into a movie. Langer’s got a knack for cutting quips, and The Critics–about a group of theater reviewers for an alternative weekly in Chicago–unleashes an acid rainstorm of them. Viewers with a taste for Langer’s brand of well-phrased waspishness may find this new play very funny, especially if they’re knowledgeable enough to get the in-jokes and theatrical references. But The Critics has little to do with the real state of theater, theater criticism, or the alternative press in Chicago, and its caricatures and flip facade undercut the playwright’s serious concerns about theater and literature.

Five writers for “New Void” magazine have been summoned to a meeting by the publication’s tense, tough editor, Jill, who reveals that a new play, titled “Before Swine,” has come to her attention: the pseudonymous script contains barely concealed portraits of the critics and the rag they write for. The author, Jill maintains, is one of them; determined to find out who the culprit is, she reads the script aloud while the critics portray their surrogate selves in the play-within-the-play. Forget six characters in search of an author; this is six characters in search of the author.

Langer’s Pirandellian put-on works as a vehicle for his mischievous, sometimes malevolent caricatures of the critics as vindictive frumps who spend most of their time together insulting one another. (Of course the notion of critics actually gathering for meetings and bringing their copy into the office is woefully outdated in this age of E-mail.) Dennis is a middle-aged queen who gave up playwriting after the failure of his nine-hour update of Wagner’s Ring Cycle set during the 1968 Prague Spring. The much younger Arthur is also a playwright, but he’s been suffering from writer’s block ever since his confessional drama “The Misfit of Briar Place” was panned by his colleague Blair, a gay North Shore trust-fund baby with aspirations to be an actor. Hecht is a flaky would-be entrepreneur who dreams of running a doughnut shop; he, too, tried his hand at writing for the stage, but his falafel-stand musical “Trouble in Tahini” went nowhere. The only woman, Sheila, is also the only one of the bunch who’s a critic exclusively; she derides her companions’ outside activities while compulsively clipping, collecting, and dissecting their reviews. Sheila, someone says, is so obsessed with the theater “that if the theater was a human being, it would certainly have to obtain a restraining order against her.”

Without revealing the solution to the mystery (which becomes pretty obvious long before the denouement anyway), suffice it to say that Jill finally fires the lot of them. “Theater is dead,” she declares. “Nobody goes. Nobody reads [reviews]. Nobody advertises.” Then she sort of rehires Sheila, who makes a climactic speech lambasting reviewers who pooh-pooh struggling, obscure off-off-Loop shows while paying obeisance to “all the theaters in the city with their streams of safe, pointless revivals and meaningless adaptations [and] musicals that don’t make you think about anything.” It’s somewhat unclear whether Langer is merely sniping that women stick together or saying that Sheila’s passion makes her the only one worthy to remain a critic–“an institution with dignity,” Sheila insists, despite the indignities Langer has heaped on his characters. The confusion arises from his ambivalence about the subject: he spends most of the play parodying critics as failures and flakes who hate theater because they couldn’t succeed in it (“Criticism is 5 percent inspiration and 95 percent masturbation,” says Blair), then shifts into reverse with an epilogue demonstrating that theater criticism comes from an impulse as creative–and destructive–as that driving any art form.

Like Seven Dates With Seven Writers, this play has great fun with its caricatures. Langer borrows a few tics and traits from real-life critics–including himself–and distributes them promiscuously among his characters to exaggerated comic effect. No one here bears any strong resemblance to recognizable local journalists; still, playwrights, actors, and directors prone to nursing grudges over bad reviews may find its venom a sweet tonic. Theater buffs may also enjoy Langer’s clever allusions to and parodies of Mamet, Sondheim, Albee, William Mastrosimone, John Patrick Shanley, and Simon Gray–as well as Tom Stoppard, whose comedy The Real Inspector Hound concerns a pair of theater critics drawn into the alternate world of the whodunit they’re reviewing.

As director, Langer supports the material with a lean, low-budget production using simple but effective lighting to shift between the play’s double realities, and his well-chosen cast–Mary Beth McMahon as Jill, Jim Donovan as Dennis, Mark Vanasse as Arthur, Maht Wells as Blair, James Wm. Joseph as Hecht, and Juliet Schaefer as Sheila–imbue their roles with crisp, high-stakes energy. (Donovan’s perpetual peevishness as Dennis and Vanasse’s air of paralyzed panic as Arthur are especially funny.)

Missing, however, is any serious effort to probe the real craft of theater and theater criticism–or even the real circumstances of critics’ lives. Some reviewers are indeed part-time playwrights or actors or directors, but others work as teachers, AIDS caseworkers, foundation staffers–hell, I know one who quit to become a rabbi. Some critics find their real calling in other fields; others find their calling as critics after trying other professions; others shift back and forth as their personalities evolve over the years. This is called real life, and there’s far too little of it in this amusingly bitchy but distressingly shallow comedy.

Langer and Kamen are both skillful jokesters, but they’re capable of more. They should dig much deeper into the questions on their minds–or else head out to Hollywood and make some real money churning out gags for late-night TV.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Seven Dates with seven Writers theater still by Liz Winter/ The Critics theater still by A. Langer.