Endangered Species Theatre Company

at Cafe Voltaire

The search for the dumbest play of 1994 has ended all too soon–the next 11 months can’t possibly bring a more inane, clumsily acted, aggressively empty-headed concoction to the stage than Scott Schiff’s You’re Blocking My Vision of Reality. You name it, this hour-long one-act from the Endangered Species Theatre Company (the irony of the name!) has got it–derivative premise, lamebrain jokes, pretentious speechifying, dimwitted dialogue, jerky line readings, vanity roles, plot holes you could lose a truck in.

The situation comes right from Pirandello, but writer-director-actor Schiff has omitted all philosophical grounding and sense of play. A frustrated. author named Frank (Bill Russell) picks up a water pistol and interrupts a play he claims he wrote himself 15 years before and another writer stole and trivialized. Frank’s work, called Coffee With Sweet and Low, was his depiction of a “beautiful world,” a manuscript that supposedly made up for his lousy job as a technical writer. But in the actors’ contamination of his play–it’s never quite clear who are the saboteurs, the actors or the supposed second author–urine is substituted for coffee. Such artistic violations piss Frank off.

Trapped with the actors–the fourth wall comes down–the monumentally self-pitying Frank thrashes out his petty grievances for a tedious-beyond-words 60 minutes. As Frank asserts his authorship, the alternately hostile and malleable actor/characters whiningly object. By the end Frank has restored his “vision of reality” to the stage and banished the corrupted play’s single violent character, a hostile busboy (Rich Clayton, the production’s one black actor).

Schiff’s submoronic humor doesn’t even trigger the groan reflex; his idea of wit is to have one character tell another, “You have a chip on your shoulder. (PAUSE) I mean you really have a chip on your shoulder.” It’s too dumb for a groan, too bland for a gag reflex. Even more peculiar, the play opens with a sadistic waiter (Rob Southgate) howling instructions at the audience not to sneeze under any circumstances. Go figure.

The acting, which ranges from shouting to screaming, is almost comically inept–almost. Nothing ever really gets funny here, not even unintentionally. Indeed, it’s impossible to tell how good any individual Endangered Species actor is because they’ve all been coached to behave like raging ninnies.

For what seems the 3,654th time, the rule against playwrights directing their own work has been proved. Schiff’s one hope would have been to have a keen-eared director sort out and shape up this sloppy, self-indulgent script and give the shenanigans some substance. But that was not to be.


Sleeping Dog Theatre Company

at Angel Island

Happy New Year. . . Skinnyguy is another play about an imaginary life gone awry. It’s also another case of an actor writing a work to give himself a role. According to a press release, Happy New Year began as a stream-of-consciousness monologue John Corwin wrote on the Ravenswood el. Though inevitably it’s superior to Schiff’s one-act, it too should have remained a daydream.

This hour-long one-act–the inaugural work of the Sleeping Dog Theatre Company, a group of theater artists who met at Illinois State University–is a self-indulgent actor’s exercise. Its one challenge is to our patience. Depicting the title character’s disastrous New Year’s Eve, it clumsily strings together a series of diffuse but obvious, dramatically inert incidents, each drawn directly from the playwright’s experience: childhood memories are plopped down as if speaking them on a stage will make them drama. It doesn’t.

Locked out of his Chicago apartment for reasons that are never made clear, Skinnyguy (played by the author) is a bored, whiny 26-year-old bank clerk who embarks on a bad dream. While trying to get home to hear the countdown to a new year, he meets his childhood fantasy Priscilla Barnes–who played the nurse on Three’s Company–but is repelled by her advances and her habit of confusing him with Barry Manilow. He then imagines his college roommate, who hysterically demands the return of his facial cream and gel. He also remembers how on dull family trips to Naples, Florida, his bumptious dad would suddenly stop the car to relieve, rather messily, his weak bladder (an event Corwin shows, all too accurately).

Adding to Skinnyguy’s self-described “stress attack” is an encounter with his estranged girlfriend: Skinnyguy confuses her with his mother, insults her about an abortion she had, then wonders why she rushes off. Finally he meets a nearly forgotten high school acquaintance named Fenwick who as a child was sexually abused by a priest; in Corwin’s frantic attempt to end the play, Fenwick–or is it Skinnyguy?–attempts suicide. Skinnyguy finally seems to get into his apartment, about an hour too late for those of us waiting in the audience.

Throughout these thuddingly banal events, Skinnyguy complains about his skinny arms, dull job, premature ejaculation, and apparently anything else that came to the author’s mind. Nothing here–and certainly not the silly jelly-bean fight that erupts in the middle of the play and litters the stage with cracking candies–has been shaped into anything like a play. You’ve got to wonder if there’s any thing that would not be grist for this desperate mill.

Happy New Year may be blandly written, but at least it’s frantically performed in Brendan Hunt’s staging for’ Sleeping Dog Theatre Company. Given the recklessly random script, passable performances by Corwin, Krista Lally, Jonathan Browning, and James Kasprzyk hardly matter, nor does the lack of anything like a premeditated set. These people are in a play whose only reason for existence is the fact that they want to do it; adding an audience to the sorry, talky results is superfluous.

Sleeping Dog’s press release poignantly says, “We really hope that this isn’t our last show.” I hope so too–they must have more to offer than this.