at Body Politic Theatre


Griffin Theatre Company

When the Friends of the Zoo stopped performing regularly almost two years ago, the Chicago theater scene lost something vital. This talented troupe of singer-comedians had injected new life into musical theater and satire at a time when most comedy troupes were content to crank out tedious revues that were at best pale shadows of Second City’s work. Even companies like the plucky, constantly percolating Annoyance Theatre can’t hold a candle to Mark Nutter’s intelligent, witty lyrics or to the Friends of the Zoo’s inventive theatrical productions.

When it was announced that three of the creative forces behind the Friends of the Zoo–Nutter, Peter Burns, and Rob Riley–were putting together a new show, there was reason to hope it would be fun and Zoo-like. In a way Wild Men! is reminiscent of the company’s best work. Certainly Nutter’s 12 songs are every bit as clever as anything he wrote during the Zoo years. Who else would dare write a parody of overblown Broadway tunes with lyrics like “We’re wild men, woolly wild men, and not especially tame”?

The premise of the show, a comic exploration of the men’s movement, could pass for a Zoo premise. But the two-act play that Burns, Nutter, Riley, and Tom Wolfe wrote is in many ways stronger, darker, and richer than anything I remember Friends of the Zoo doing.

They have, for instance, done a great job of getting under the skin of the men’s movement. Both writers and cast seriously explore the societal forces that divide sons from fathers and make the movement necessary, though they rarely pass up an opportunity to make fun of the more suspect elements of the movement–the glib explanations, the new-age paganism, the hucksterism inherent in any for-profit venture that promises to deliver a new you in two days.

Nutter et al sometimes used to sacrifice sense for laughs and distort the believability of their pieces with grotesque surrealist humor–such as having the ghost of a Jolson-esque song-and-dance man return in Zoo Thousand One as a ten-foot-tall fiend in blackface. But in Wild Men! no element of the production–comedy, songs, flashes of fantasy–cracks the tight structure.

The result is a play in which laughs (of which there are plenty) play second fiddle to character development. The story–about four misfits (Burns, David Lewman, Joe Liss, George Wendt) who find themselves at a weekend men’s retreat run by a Robert Bly wannabe named Stuart Penn (Riley)–is so compelling that by the end of the play these five fools feel like old friends.

Of course it can’t hurt that they work together as naturally as old friends; each gives his all, but no one tries to hotdog or hog the stage. Even the big star in the show, Wendt, known to millions as Norm on Cheers, is just one of the gang, performing with the sort of generous give-and-take that made him a pleasure to watch more than a decade ago at Second City.

What a treat to see a work that aims for comedy, hits it, and incidentally also turns out to be a work of art.

I wish I could say the same for Richard Dresser’s lame slice-of-life comedy Alone at the Beach, an all-too-predictable two-act play about a group of misfits sharing a beach house in the Hamptons: it aims to be art and just barely qualifies as dinner-theater comedy. The play follows six characters, or rather six neuroses disguised as characters, as they learn to live together over the course of a long, hot, dreary summer, made longer and hotter by the production’s lengthy, awkward, drama-deflating scene changes.

Molly, who begins the play stinging from her recent divorce, learns to love George, who sheds his nerdish manner in favor of the sort of assertive behavior Molly approves of. Sex addict Robbie is cured when he falls head over heels for wallflower Lonnie, who learns to quit her codependent ways and tells him she doesn’t want to see just him.

Dresser’s characters are a bit more three-dimensional than this soap- opera plot summary indicates, but not much. Which is surprising, because the only other Dresser play I know, Better Days, is full of eccentric, foible-filled characters. Perhaps they only seem deeper because that story, about a group of friends trying to maintain their dignity in the middle of a deep recession, is so much more compelling and relevant. The stories in Alone at the Beach are so trivial and the characters so unjustifiably whiny and selfish that you don’t care how their lives turn out.

Still, if director Richard Barletta increased the tempo, Dresser’s shallowness might not be so apparent. As it is, the story unfolds with the excruciating slowness of a Kurosawa film. And that slowness makes even the funniest of Dresser’s lines–“The first ten months of our divorce were the happiest of our lives”–sound witless and dead. It also makes the awkward second act–in which we are asked to believe that neither George nor his psychiatrist suspected for a moment that George was dating the psychiatrist’s ex-wife–even less believable.