Victory Gardens Theater

Over the last decade or so theater has begun to look more and more like TV. The most blatant productions literally transplant shows like The Brady Bunch, This Week in Joe’s Basement, and Bewitched onto the stage, while a number of “legitimate” productions have simply had more in common with sitcoms or tearfest movies of the week than with stage classics. A new breed of playwrights weaned on the boob tube–a list that might include Craig Lucas, Scott McPherson, Richard Greenberg, and numerous local writers–have, for better or worse, started to replace the mysteries of the stage with the comforts of the living room. Too often, however, the theater feels like a training ground where characters, plots, and situations are tweaked and refined for the far more lucrative small screen.

The midwest premiere of Tom Dudzick’s Greetings! at Victory Gardens Theater, directed by Dennis Zacek, is one of the best examples of tele-theater (or drama-vision) around, suggesting a way out of the TV rut. Even though his treatment of the typical middle-class American family owes more to Garry Marshall than to Edward Albee, Dudzick is smart enough to know how to subvert his own groaningly predictable TV roots.

The setup for Greetings! is so pat and derivative that you might find yourself grumbling and shifting your weight during the first half of the first act. In this inverse Beau Jest (which had its premiere at Victory Gardens), a gentile dude takes his Jewish-born atheist fiancee home for Christmas to meet the folks, with predictably discomforting results. The opening scene, in which Andy Gorski and Randi Stein fly into Gorski’s hometown, Pittsburgh, seems mostly needless exposition and comes complete with lots of cliches and banalities: “We’re going to have a wonderful time.” “You really believe your father will like me?” And perhaps because the dialogue is so stiff, Patrick Thornton and Rachel Silverman perform it tentatively. The scene in which Andy introduces Randi to his parents and his irrepressibly adorable retarded brother Mickey is not much better, relying on standard Jew-among-thegoyim uneasiness and tried-and-true theological debate about how an all-powerful God can turn away from human cruelty.

Just when you think hope is lost, round about the end of act one, Dudzick introduces a seemingly hokey device that pulls the rug out from under all the TV dramedy corn and replaces it with unpredictable, profoundly moving theatrical sorcery. A haughty, sardonic alien takes possession of Mickey’s body, insinuating itself into the household in order to counsel Randi and the Gorski family in their time of spiritual crisis.

The second half of Greetings! is an admittedly ridiculous but emotionally charged drama about faith, religion, and family loyalty, exploring the beliefs and issues that lie beneath television cliches. Though the truths the alien being reveals are not exactly earth-shattering (“People do not change until they are ready to change”), the conflicts engendered are both highly engrossing and surprisingly real. The combination of absolute joy and horror Mickey’s parents display when they see him speaking intelligibly for the first time in his life sends shivers up the spine. And the play’s mystical wrap-up, in which love and conviction overpower religious differences, is heartwarming in the best and truest sense. Nothing on the small screen could ever equal the power of the play’s second act.

The reliable Roslyn Alexander and Bernie Landis are masterful as the old-world parents trying to make sense of an alien new world, as is the magical Jeffrey Hughes as their retarded son: he’s able to mediate between the mentally challenged Mickey and his mentally gifted otherworldly possessor without ever once seeming maudlin or phony. The interactions between Landis and Hughes are particularly heartfelt and well realized. As the young couple, Thornton and Silverman are occasionally endearing but never fully overcome their early stiltedness; they remain more types than human beings.

It’s difficult to say whether Dud-zick is actually trying to upend trite TV formulas or merely replacing one set of cliches with another in Greetings! But if we go along with the holiday spirit of kindness Dudzick’s alien endorses, we too must embrace the good and forgive the bad. And so we turn ever so gently away from Dudzick’s heinous first scenes to applaud his second act.

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