at the Transient Theatre

Whatever its value as a tool for playwrights learning their craft, the one-act play is not a very marketable commodity these days. Though one might think that television would have accustomed audiences to dramas packaged in 30- or 60-minute units, most theatergoers still expect at least a two-hour bang for their buck. So one-acts are usually presented as segments of a showcase. They may be completely unrelated to one another, or they may have just enough superficial similarity to be joined under one theme–often at the expense of the playwright’s intent. Transient Theatre’s production of three one-acts by Chicago Dramatists Workshop members Stan Nevin and Dean Barclay falls somewhere in between.

The plays’ collective title, A Tripnotic Night, is one framing device. Another is the presence of an onstage character called “The Dreamer” (Randi Shepard), whose actions constitute a jumping-off point for each of the plays, which we are to assume are her dreams. Though her personality is left unspecific, her dress, props, and reading matter suggest that she recently arrived at college. Over the course of the evening, we see her wistfully hug a photograph of her parents, study from a volume of Freud, and listen to a violence-packed radio newscast. There is even an epilogue in which she is awakened by her friends, who turn out to be the real-life counterparts of those who populated her troubled fantasies.

This staging convention succeeds in linking the three plays while allowing each one the room to develop its own themes. Unfortunately, these themes are not particularly original or well-developed–at best these plays are typical of what one encounters in young writers’ groups. So Transient Theatre deserves credit for lending the diverse offerings not only a semblance of continuity but also new insights.

Stan Nevin’s Passion Play details the growth of a young man who describes himself as “passionate” (a quality, he tells his girlfriend, that has nothing to do with “liking someone very much”). This caveat doesn’t stop that lady from coercing him into an early marriage, with a baby quickly following. So the passionate young man goes to work at a senseless job, toiling under an oppressive and self-interested female supervisor and alongside a competitive woman whose passions, it emerges, are equal to his. Soon the ghosts of his youth tempt him with offers to deliver him from his encumbrances. At the crucial moment, however, the cry of his infant son recalls him to his responsibilities. Having made the “right” decision, he rededicates his passion to the welfare of his son and his wife–who promptly presents him with another child.

One moment in Passion Play separates it from the standard male fantasy of an idyllic indolence destroyed when society–i.e. all those women–chains a man of passions down to a life of domestic servitude. That is the moment when the protagonist himself chooses to heed his offspring’s appeal for protection and then orders out the selfish demons who would jeopardize his loved ones. Scot Casey, who directed all three one-acts, makes the most of this moment in order to paint Passion Play’s hero as less of a helpless victim–although in doing so he may contradict the playwright’s sentiment, which can be seen in the cynical reward meted out to him for his noble decision. Bill Mann is suitably naive in the lead role, and the manic Tom Daniel and the leggy Christina Koehlinger shine as his tempters. Also memorable is Robert Sokolowski as a baby out of a young father’s nightmares.

Dean Barclay’s Synesthesia takes its title from a perceptual disorder in which a sensory stimulus produces, in addition to the appropriate response, other seemingly unrelated responses. (This is not necessarily a pathological trait, since the ability to “taste” words or to “hear” colors is often an integral part of artistic creativity.) Barclay’s play has little to do with this disorder, however, except that one character, Drew (Drew Trusk), claims to be plagued by it and goes to see a psychiatrist, Bob (Sokolowski), for assistance. Bob has only recently resumed his practice after suffering a mental breakdown, during which he began an abortive affair with one of his patients. This hapless female, Cynthia (Cynthia Marie), has grown suicidally depressed over her brief romance and has consulted another psychiatrist, Bridget (Bridget Powell), who decides that a confrontation is the only way to settle the matter. Bridget’s colleague, Tom (Tom Daniel), makes leering suggestions that she is secretly jealous of the hold Bob’s memory has over Cynthia. Meanwhile, Drew stages his own confrontation with a childhood friend (Kim Ronkin) he believes caused his synesthetic condition, but she turns out to be none other than the psychiatrist presently treating a patient called . . .

But what does it matter? Synesthesia is a post-Freudian version of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1900 daisy-chain comedy La Ronde, with therapy instead of sex as the connection. This kind of puzzle is fun to write, but often confusing to watch, unless each narrative line is clear throughout. Barclay’s play zips along with mechanical precision, but never fixes its characters firmly enough in our minds to enable us to follow the many lines of action and motive. This results in unresolved questions, such as whether Bridget is a repressed lesbian, a control freak, or an honest therapist truly interested in her patient’s recovery. There are also ambiguous characters, such as Tom, who seems to have no purpose beyond finding hidden sexual meaning everywhere (though Daniel is hilarious in the role). Drew’s affliction, which could have clarified the theme, is not introduced until midway into the play, further confusing the chronology. Casey and his cast do what they can to give this jumble some degree of coherence, but they can’t make Synesthesia anything more than a six-finger exercise for the playwright.

By contrast, Nevin’s Deer Man requires little salvaging, being a fairly straightforward variation on the comic-book epic. However, Deer Man is actually a woman–the philanthropic Dr. Margaret Faraday, who conquers crime through kindness and rehabilitation rather than superior force (which should relegate this script to children’s theaters). Cynthia Marie displays virgin-warrior nobility in the role of Faraday, and is ably supported by Koehlinger as Dawn, her saintly blind sister, and Tom Daniel, playing it straight for a change, as Dawn’s gentle husband. Providing adversity is Sokolowski as the evil social Darwinist Ronald Pierce, a man as evil as Deer Man is good. Daniel also contributes some lively comic-combat choreography, complete with chases around the auditorium and through the audience, and Sokolowski provides some on-the-mark atmospheric music, including the Kinks’ “Superman” and Cheap Trick’s “Dream Police.”

The one-act is often no more than a test of an idea for a full-length play (David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago began as a one-act). Transient Theatre is to be commended for providing the authors of these three plays-in-progress with some direction for further development.