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Sexual Perversity in Chicago

Found Theater Company at the Note

By Albert Williams

Danny: I love you.

Deborah: Does it frighten you to say that?

Danny: Yes.

Deborah: It’s only words. I don’t think you should be frightened by words.

–from Sexual Perversity in Chicago

It’s been 25 years since a promising young local writer named David Mamet jolted the off-Loop theater scene with an obscenely honest little comedy called Sexual Perversity in Chicago. The intervening decades have seen a cultural sea change, yet this one-act’s quirky characters, brilliantly brutal and funny dialogue, and eternal theme of the passions and intricacies of sex remain as irresistible to young actors as a hunk of cheese is to a mouse. But the play can be a mousetrap, with snares en route to the tasty reward: it’s all too easy to muddy Mamet’s stringently economical text with overstated line readings and sardonically self-conscious sitcom attitudes, which force the audience to chuckle at “those people” rather than invite laughter in self-recognition.

Those problems undermined the Wing & Groove Theatre’s attempt at the play in January–a production that launched what amounted to a Mamet minifest this year as theaters from Des Plaines to Pilsen and Wrigleyville to Rogers Park revived a slew of early and midcareer Mamet works (among them Edmond, Glengarry Glen Ross, Speed-the-Plow, and two Oleannas), while Skokie’s Northlight Theatre offered the local premiere of Mamet’s recent The Old Neighborhood. Now, as the 1998-’99 season wraps up, along comes a second Sexual Perversity, presented at the Note nightclub in Wicker Park by a new troupe, the Found Theater Company. Happily, the current production is not only far superior to Wing & Groove’s, it’s the best of several off-Loop renditions of the play I’ve seen over the past few years.

For one thing, it respects the play’s specific setting without overplaying it–no mean feat. Premiered by the Organic Theater under director Stuart Gordon in the summer of 1974 at the Uptown Center Hull House, Sexual Perversity in Chicago is rooted in the Lincoln Park-Gold Coast singles scene of the mid-70s, an era as subject to nostalgia and revisionism as Richard Nixon’s reign. The Wing & Groove production overstressed the play’s setting with a sound track of 70s pop that merely distracted from the script’s lean precision. Several years earlier, the Blue Collar Theatre Company took a different but no more successful approach, attempting what it called a “thoroughly 90s production” that failed to take into account the play’s references to the Equal Rights Amendment and an even more dated lack of references to AIDS.

The Found Theater’s bare-bones rendition, played on a small stage generally used by jazz musicians, evokes the story’s setting with a collection of retro costumes: if their shirt collars flared any wider, the cast’s two male members would take off like Dumbo. But actor-director Dan Halstead and the other ensemble members know that while Sexual Perversity may be set in 70s Chicago, it’s a universal story whose impact both relies on and transcends its details. Lord knows times have changed since Mamet wrote this play. But all over the world men and women still fuck and fight, and lovers still pursue and resist intimacy while misguidedly seeking counsel from ill-informed advisers. The “sexual perversity” of the title is evident not only in the erotic encounters between Danny Shapiro and Deborah Soloman, whose affair the play charts from pickup to breakup. Perversity also permeates the lovers’ relationships with their slightly older mentor-friends, Danny’s coworker Bernie Litko and Deb’s roommate Joan Webber–and it’s at the root of each character’s sense of him- or herself.

Mamet’s rhetorical strategy in this early one-act, as in better-known full-length works like American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross, and Oleanna, is to withhold crucial information about the characters’ backgrounds and motivations. That way we can only speculate about (and invest our own experience in) the reasons for Danny and Deb’s almost willful destruction of their promising romance, and the roots of the hateful, hurtful sexual repression that drives Bernie and Joan to undermine their friends’ hopes for happiness. Yet Mamet is well aware of how people thwart their own hopes and bring about their own ruin, and no American playwright has written more incisively about the way people wield words like knives (indeed, like the Swiss army knife that becomes such a potent symbol of loss and self-destruction in Mamet’s later plays Edmond and The Cryptogram), inflicting what one character here calls “physical and mental mutilations” on others while psychically slashing themselves.

Sexual Perversity in Chicago weds the blackout-sketch formula popular in the 1960s at Second City (where the teenage Mamet worked as a busboy) to the blunt didacticism of Brecht’s raw early works, documenting telling moments in the nine summer weeks during which Danny and Deb meet, mate, move in together, and finally separate. The sequences between them (most of which take place in bed) are juxtaposed with monologues and with depictions of Dan hanging out with Bernie and Deb with Joan. The action jumps around to various locales–offices, apartments, bars, a porn theater–and the script is peppered with references to north-side landmarks, such as R.J. Grunt’s and the old Commonwealth coffee shop (now the White Hen Pantry at Diversey and Pine Grove). Though the vignettes can stand alone as darkly comic “bits,” they also accumulate into a narrative almost as if by accident–what makes the play so challenging to perform is the deceptive casualness and randomness of Mamet’s decisions about what to show. In fact there’s a chilling logic to how he’s ordered the scenes, but emphasizing how Sexual Perversity operates as a play can be as counterproductive as presenting the work as a sort of comedy revue.

The Found Theater’s production inhabits an effective middle ground, allowing the story to emerge without belaboring it. Best of all, the cast conveys not only the play’s raunchy, outrageous humor but the aching loneliness beneath it. The actors give consistently honest performances: shaggy-haired, sideburned Jim York as earnest, slightly dim Danny; pert, blond Gina Ciaccio as a strong-willed, sexually eager Deb; dark, statuesque Ann Koons as an externally controlled, internally chaotic Joan; and director Halstead as a sardonic, ever-so-slightly soggy Bernie. Together they create a credible reality crucial to making the play work in a smoky, blue-lit barroom. (Actually, the nightclub setting enhances the didactic cabaret-theater aesthetic Mamet drew from Brecht and Second City.)

The show isn’t without problems. Some may have been opening-night gaffes: a flubbed line here, a missing prop there. Others may be eliminated over the course of the run: occasionally sluggish lighting cues undermine the production’s pace, for example. More important, the company needs to pay attention to the crisp rhythms of Mamet’s raunchy, rat-a-tat repartee. Halstead’s choice to have Bernie speak with a slight but persistent slur is a credible way to suggest the character’s alcoholism, but it slows the comic momentum of his sexual tall tales (including an outlandish account of a date with a woman who fantasizes about being a bomber pilot–and literally fuels her fantasy with gasoline and a Zippo lighter). And though the well-staged bedroom scenes between Danny and Deb convey an engaging, understated intimacy, Ciaccio needs to deliver some payoff lines a little more clearly.

Nevertheless, this production is both an auspicious debut for a talented, intelligent new company and a forceful affirmation of the enduring power of a landmark Chicago play. Despite the company’s name I think its members know that good theater is carefully crafted, not “found.” They also know that the key to off-Loop theater’s continued vitality–a crucial alternative to downtown Chicago’s transformation into a massive theme park overrun with high-priced, heavily hyped commercial entertainment–is preserving and nurturing a sense of casual discovery and risk taking, among both artists and audiences. Witness the appreciative folks who wandered in off Milwaukee Avenue last weekend to get a beer and stayed to see a play that speaks with gritty yet humorous honesty about the reality of their lives.

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