Richard Cotovsky and Rudy Galvan
Richard Cotovsky and Rudy Galvan Credit: Lev Kalmens

At this year’s non-Equity Jeff Awards ceremony, held June 3 at Park West, Richard Cotovsky received special recognition for his “cutting edge contributions to Non-Equity Theatre over the past four decades.” He’s spent most of that time as the artistic director of Mary-Arrchie Theatre, acting in and directing productions built according to the classic off-Loop blueprint: gritty, gutsy plays performed by actors with day jobs (Cotovsky is a full-time pharmacist) on a stage not much bigger than a parking space, for an audience that doesn’t far outnumber the cast.

Last week, Tracy Letts gave a shout-out to the makers of this kind of theater when he picked up a Tony Award for his performance in Steppenwolf’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? “I share this with the actors in Chicago and in storefronts,” he said. “We are the ones who say it to their faces, and we have a unique responsibility.” Cotovsky has shouldered his share of the responsibility, and good for the Jeff Committee for noticing.

As if to cleanse his palate after receiving what amounts to a lifetime achievement award, Cotovsky is now appearing in a play about a spectacular failure: Uncle Bob, a witty, wordy, deeply flawed 1995 comedy by Austin Pendleton. The title character is a fiftysomething New Yorker who has done precisely nothing with his life. There was a time when he showed promise as a writer and actor, but his novels turned out to be knockoffs of Hemingway and Faulkner, and his “revisionist” take on the lead role in Harvey succeeded only in depressing the hell out of everyone who saw it. He now lives off an allowance from his brother, a midwestern businessman. Recently his wife left him—shortly after learning that he’s dying of AIDS (though he doesn’t consider himself gay or bi, Bob occasionally likes to have unprotected sex with men).

Bob takes a kind of perverse pride in all that he hasn’t accomplished and in what he thinks an early, agonizing death proves about the pointlessness of everything. His plan to die alone is interrupted, however, by the unexpected arrival of his nephew Josh, a surly college dropout with a self-destructive streak and a lot of wasted potential—in other words, Bob all over again.

Josh says he’s come to help his uncle in his time of need, but it eventually becomes clear that he’s drawn to Bob for a number of complex reasons, including confusion about his own sexuality (despite his insistence that the idea of gay sex gives him dry heaves) and a fucked-up father-son thing. Their filial bond is masked, however, by constant—and often entertaining—sniping. “Each minute that you’re here makes me happier that I am dying,” Bob says. “And I don’t mean that as an insult.”

The play’s problems start with Pendleton’s handling of AIDS. He obviously wants to avoid sentimentalizing the disease—Bob repeatedly rails against the cliches and “calendar poetry” that death seems to inspire, and flatly rejects the notion that there’s anything heroic or even meaningful about his predicament. Where Pendleton goes wrong—and where the play goes completely off the rails—is in the suggestion that Bob deliberately acquired the virus as a fitting end to a failed life. Josh eventually ferrets out this secret, and since the nephew is just as self-destructive as the uncle, the play ends with the pair deciding to have unsafe sex with each other, both having opted for suicide by compromised immune system.

In addition to being skeevy as all get out, this development presents AIDS as an illness of pathological nihilists, and Pendleton ends up treating the disease reductively after all. Instead of romanticizing AIDS as a form of tragic suffering, he reduces it to a symbol of self-loathing.

Worse from a dramatic standpoint, we don’t buy any of it for a second. From the play’s long opening monologue—delivered by Bob when his front door cracks open and he thinks his wife has returned—through Josh’s unmotivated outbursts of violence, and up to the implausible finale, things don’t happen based on what came before them but on the playwright’s strained efforts to shoehorn the plot in a certain direction. He tries to bury the contrivances in a welter of words, but they still show through—particularly in Cody Estle’s sluggish staging for Mary-Arrchie.

Shorn of his usual wild mass of hair and bushy beard, Cotovsky plays Bob with a weary demeanor and halting delivery. The approach conveys Bob’s apathy and poor health, but it robs him of his one redeeming quality: his articulateness (it didn’t help on opening night that Cotovsky struggled to remember a sizable portion of his lines). All in all, the role isn’t the ideal vehicle for a post-Jeff victory lap. Cotovsky seemed more comfortable and was far more effective last year when he played the gentle burnout at the center of Letts’s Superior Donuts.

Rudy Galvan fares better as Josh. His arc is even more incoherent than Bob’s, but Galvan manages to plant hints of loneliness, vulnerability, and genuine feeling beneath a surface that’s all scowl.