Acting Playwright

When we first encountered Neil Gray Giuntoli last October, he was portraying a murderous scumbag named T.J. Rael in a storefront theater on Clybourn Avenue a few doors up from the old headquarters of the Hell’s Henchmen. He played the part to a fare-thee-well. He was amazing. “A performance of gripping intensity,” said the Reader critic. Obviously, it helped Giuntoli in getting to the marrow of his role that he’d written it. He was the author of the play Smoke Mountain — subtitled “The Life and Death of a Petty White Trash Hoodlum” — which was based on a shooting, captured by the camera in a convenience store, that he’d seen on the Cable News Network.

We departed the theater that night guessing that Giuntoli, who is 27, will travel a long long way from Clybourn Avenue.

The day his new play, Peaches the Whore, opened at the same Prop Theatre, we met Giuntoli for lunch. He told us he used to trade pork bellies at the Mercantile Exchange and dropped $40,000. Now he lives in three rooms above the Prop and grows garlic in back. “We needed a comedy,” he told us. “We’d been in existence now for six years, and two years at the new location, and we hadn’t done a comedy. The only thing I didn’t know was that Jim Bakker, hah hah, was already writing the story for me.”

We wondered if Giuntoli had written himself the lead again.

“I play a coked-up dissatisfied rich kid,” Giuntoli told us. “It’s not as big as the part of Peaches and the Monkey Man — they are the two central characters. Peaches is an uneducated white-trash hooker, you know, from West Virginia, and the Monkey Man is a feral child from Zimbabwe.”

Feral child?

“Tarzan was a feral child. It means they are of Homo sapien origin, however they were raised by simians. I wanted two very large people. Rusty Schwimmer, she’s wonderful, she’s a Refrigerette for the Bears. Sweet, beautiful in my mind. And Tim Dienes, he plays the Monkey Man. And they fall in love in their own slow stumbling way and they blackmail this preacher, because he molested Peaches at the age of eight in West Virginia. Twinkies features prominently in the play, because Twinkies is the quintessential American dessert . . .”

Giuntoli made it clear he is a writer who happens to act. He nodded to his briefcase.

“I’ve got this script in here — it’s called The Woodchuck Wars — and it’s set five years after a limited nuclear strike, in the rural lands of America. And this father and son are making a go at it.

“And for some reason they feel that they have to bomb every woodchuck around their fields. At least the son does. He’s crazy about it. He says, ‘They got no right to live! They don’t respect the tomato field — they got no right to live! None at all!’ And it’s a metaphor.

“I’m 65 pages into it. I had to stop because we were putting up Peaches and I can’t think of a million things at once. I like Peaches a lot, it’s dear to my heart. . . . But this is the stuff I like, you know. Hit ’em hard and hit ’em fast.”

There are other irons in the fire. “I’m writing a story about dogs,” Giuntoli said. “A play. Dogs in cages. And I also got something I sent out to the John F. Kennedy Center called The Crate DweIler. It’s about a mentally ill man who lives in a crate in a major American city along the railroad tracks next to an industrial complex and he thinks he’s a Nazi storm trooper and hopefully if they award me the grant I’ll be able to do it in grand style. You know what I mean, not pinching here and there and not paying people.”

His voice stiffened with the indignity.

No one is getting rich at the level of theater represented by Prop — Chicago’s storefront level, wherein the world casually thinks a renaissance has occurred. Giuntoli said he’d popped for $4,000 out of his own pocket to put up Smoke Mountain.

“The theater market — don’t you think it’s becoming glutted?” he abruptly asked.

Sometimes we think there are more theaters out there than people who will ever come within a country mile of them.

“I know,” he said. “You’re talking about an ever present worry in my mind. Video is kicking our tail all over the place. So are movies. You see, what I attempted to do with Smoke Mountain was get the crowd in there that does not normally go to theater. Because they knew something wild was going to be happening. They’d see blood on the floor. We’re just a video generation, you know? And if anybody doesn’t doubt that, I can still remember the Tet offensive with utter clarity, even though I was eight, Ahh, that was a wild show.”

Big Jim Blushing

We have always been puzzled by the power of the family to transform men of the world into blushing rubes.

Last week Governor Thompson, noted art collector and international traveler, spoke up against the performing of a ditty called “Condom Rag” in front of the State of Illinois Center. “It’s garbage, plain garbage,” said the governor. “If I were innocently walking the streets with my family and I had to hear that . . . I would be offended.”

We imagined it. Jim, Jayne, and Samantha taking the spring air along Clark Street.

The governor has forgotten it is AIDS Awareness Week! Suddenly he is assailed in front of the State of Illinois Center by the five rapping wits who call themselves Local Talent.

You say you want sex that’s safe and fun. Well, jive with us and we’ll show you how it’s done.

“Oh my Lord in heaven!” the governor gasps. He shoves his wife away and buries his daughter inside the folds of his coat.

They come in all colors though just one size. I want one that’ll match my eyes.

“You big stiff!” says Jayne, getting up off the sidewalk. “You weren’t such a puritan when you and Helmut Jahn were cooking up that bathroom-blue bird cage with the dingus on top.”

“We were boys being boys,” says the governor.

“And what about Cathy Webb’s skivvies!”

“That was only television,” he explains. “Here I am innocently walking the streets with my family.”

Step one in being safe, not stupid, is avoid contact of bodily fluids.

“We learned that in school,” says Samantha in a muffled voice inside her father’s coat.

The governor shakes his fist at the rappers as he herds his family along.

“We’ll go have some ice cream,” he says sulkily and pats the bulge in his coat where his daughter’s head is. “Those awful awful people had no business upsetting you like that.”

“I don’t want to die,” says Samantha, who is struggling to get out.

True Wimp

It’s never too late to screw up a TV show. The producers of Jack and Mike were told that before the “Spirits of the Night” episode could air in reruns this summer, they had to take out the business that made some church people cranky.

It’s the scene where Anthony Kubacek wakes up in Belinda’s apartment for the umpteenth time, and as he’s stumbling around looking for his socks she says, “Why don’t you just live here with me?” And he says, “My mother. It would kill her if she found out we were living in sin.”

And she says, “Anthony, your mother survived World War II and Poland. I think maybe she could survive this.” And he says, “I can’t do it to her, Belinda. I’m a Catholic.”

And she says, “Anthony, you’re a wimp,” and yanks him into bed.

Well, the network heard about that one. ABC got a letter from the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. “The message you are conveying is that those who abide by the Catholic Church teachings and the moral authority of parents are all wimps.” We admired Anthony’s sticking to his catechismal guns (so did Belinda, it looked like), but ABC caved in without a fight. Alan Wurtzel, vice president of broadcast standards, ordered a change, and the actor who plays Kubacek, Kevin Dunne (known to us as the “hubster” of Hot Type colleague Katina Alexander), ducked into a Chicago studio last week to reloop three words. Now Anthony says “I’m a coward” and the scene has no payoff.

If they want to turn Anthony into a jellyfish instead of a guy with some sense of conscience, how about rewriting the part to make him a network vice president?

A Year Older

John F. Kennedy turns 70 years old this month.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.