Playwrights’ Center

Every time I see a play that tries to take a big issue (the meaning of life, the human condition, death) and make it comprehensible on the stage, I think of my dad. He taught philosophy at a college in Saint Louis, and one of his pet peeves, as a man who read and reread Plato and Aristotle like fundamentalists read the Bible, was the way artists presume to answer the sorts of questions (How should we live? What should we live for?) only philosophers, with their trained, rational minds, were fit to answer. He believed that the arts just confused people and kept them from true understanding by filling their brains with all sorts of pretty images, persuasive lies, and baseless opinions.

My counterargument was that there were some questions (How do we live now? When did this particular character’s life go astray?) that the arts are better suited to answer. I never persuaded him. And he never converted me.

But now that I’ve seen Chicago playwright Don Regal’s White Dwarf I see that my father was right, if not for the reasons he gave. The problem isn’t that playwrights can’t come up with the big answers and philosophy can. The problem is that any playwright who tries to use the theater to come up with an answer to questions like “Why do we die?” and “What is the meaning of life?” risks being overwhelmed by the questions and is in danger of neglecting the very aspects of the play that make for good theater–dialogue, story, character.

Certainly this is true of Regal’s ambitious but fatally flawed work. In attempting to deal with a cloud of questions about life and death–among them, “Why do we grow old?” “What is the point of living?” “Why me, why now?”–Regal has created a play that is decidedly long on talk and short on story and character development.

If White Dwarf had been about characters who walk through their lives mulling over these questions, it might have worked. But Regal tried to use his play to illustrate his squishy-headed philosophy. So we’re given three interwoven stories, one set in the past (the early 40s), one in the present, and one in the future–the sum total of which is supposed to tell us, in the words of the show’s press release, something about “hope and despair, wonder and disbelief, life and death.”

Of the three stories, the one set in the 40s is the most complete. In this tale an average lower-middle-class family is torn apart when the two daughters come down with a deadly strain of pneumonia. The second story consists of a few fragments from the dreary life of a waiter named Sam who dreams of greatness (he wants to be a “supernova”) but whose life is cut short by an AIDS-type virus. The third story, if you can call it that, concerns an old man who spends most of his time onstage reading the paper, except for a single long monologue about how unfair it is that he’s too old to benefit from a miraculous youth extender he’s just read about.

These three stories might make more sense if Regal had spent more time trimming and rewriting his script. Instead, it takes a very long time to figure out what these seemingly unrelated stories have in common.

To make matters worse, one never gets the sense that the story is advancing toward any sort of resolution. Instead, we get two acts’ worth of still moments in the lives of Regal’s various two-dimensional characters. Such quiet scenes, in the hands of a more practiced writer such as Maria Irene Fornes (Abingdon Square), can work quite well. But Regal’s still unsure hands (this is either his first or his third play, depending on whether you believe the program or the press release) only guarantee that his play will remain formless and inert from opening scene to final curtain.

Regal’s work is strongest when he gives free rein to his quirky, perverse logic or his playful sense of structure (some scenes last only seconds, bits of dialogue come back in a recurring sound montage that plays during blackouts). Unfortunately, even the lighter moments of Regal’s work are weighed down with the effort to say something very important. It doesn’t help that Regal signals the beginning of serious scenes by lapsing into cliche-ridden dialogue (“I’ve walked that path a thousand times.” “Is this all life is?” “Man, man, man. You’ve got to live”).

Even an excellent cast of seasoned Equity actors would have trouble with this script. Unfortunately, all director Genevieve Morrill has to work with is an incredibly uneven crew of non- Equity actors, some of whom seem destined for better shows (Bruno Oliver, Mia Lefkowitz, Jeff Strong, James Krulish), and some of whom will probably spend the rest of their acting careers in the depths of community and off-off-Loop theater. But even the worst actors in the show can leave each performance safe in the knowledge that they could do nothing to make this play any worse than it is.

Director Audry DeLucia’s cast for Alan Arrivee’s bleak and remarkably unfunny one-act Dream Horse may take similar comfort. The worst actor in Chicago couldn’t make it any more tedious.

Part of Playwrights’ Center’s late-night series but not directly associated with the center (which the people there are at pains to make clear), Dream Horse is an independent production put together by Arrivee after it was clear the play (which was performed at the center’s summer festival of staged readings) was not going to be chosen for a regular production at the center.

This tedious hour-long play–filled with standard paper-thin characters and a number of not very funny (but thankfully restrained) moments of low comedy–is really little more than a skit about a greedy relative who tries to get his rich, elderly uncle (Arrivee himself) to sign away his fortune. Dream Horse could almost pass for a flawed serious play but for the fact that it contains all the elements of a comedy–except a sense of humor. (Even the opening-night audience, packed with well-wishers and friends, watched the play in tense, unamused silence.)

The problem is that none of the intended comedy works, because Arrivee subscribes to the markedly adolescent idea that there is nothing funnier than someone doing something incongruous. So the script makes a big deal of the fact that the old man listens to punk music, and later strains for a laugh when it is revealed that he has sold his priceless antique furniture and bought expensive but ratty- looking new furniture. (To make sure we know he paid too much, Arrivee has his character leave the price tags on.)

But Arrivee is worse when he’s trying to be serious. At the end of the play the old man spends five minutes or so delivering an incomprehensible faux Sam Shepard monologue about his recently departed wife (whom he nicknamed “Dream Horse,” after the horse his father promised but never gave him). It’s pure bathos: “Now she’s gone and faded away. She’s over the skies and doesn’t exist. Her arms are hooves and kick through the soil. She’s up in the clouds and faded away. [Softer.] She’s up in the clouds and faded away. [Softer still.] She’s up in the clouds and faded away. [Curtain.]” (She doesn’t exist and she has hooves? She’s gone but still she kicks through the soil? She’s up in the clouds and gone away? Even my high school poetry magazine would not have published this gassy piece, and it published just about anything.)

It’s sad that director Audry DeLucia and her young, energetic, talented cast seem primed for much better material than this. Dan Harray knows how to get a laugh with the simplest roll of his eyes. And Jennifer Roberts’s remarkably subtle seduction of the old man (accomplished with little more than eye contact and understated body language) adds the only moment of drama to an otherwise flat work. In fact, only Arrivee’s utterly unconvincing old man seems at home in this dead material.