Strawdog Theatre Company

All right, so what’s wrong with this fuckin’ society anyway? Why are we the only animals who clothe not only our bodies but our feelings? Why do we live in an age in which people seem to be divided into victimizers and victimized? And just what the hell’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding anyway?

Playwright John Patrick Shanley claims our society is in the throes of a “big funk” right now, a funk caused by paralyzing fears of death and the unknown. This deep funk forces us to deny our humanity; to cloak our bodies, hiding the fact of our nakedness; to conceal our true sentiments with masks of indifference, cruelty, and cynicism. In Shanley’s view, society is nothing more than a construct devised to cover our fears.

“Our fear is thick,” Shanley tells us through one of his characters in The Big Funk. “It’s casting a shadow like a thunderhead.” And before we can pull ourselves out of this funk we’ve got to admit we’re in it. “Look at your fear,” Shanley advises. “See the funk. See the funk we’re in. Look at nothing else. It’s our fear that’s created the thunderhead.”

Shanley is a pretty familiar name on the theater circuit, but his works are probably a lot more familiar to theater professionals than to audiences. That’s because his monologues are among the most frequently used by actors at auditions, a fact suggesting he may be more talented at writing speeches than at crafting plays. Which is not to say that Shanley’s The Big Funk isn’t enjoyable. It has touching and funny moments, especially in the exceedingly well acted Chicago premiere it’s receiving from Strawdog Theatre Company. Shanley has an ear for turns of phrase, and he introduces us to some intriguing, mildly original characters, but in his eagerness to speechify he robs them of their appeal and depth. In the end his play is less the educational romp he intended than an overexplained civics lesson.

The Big Funk is designed to be a surreal cross-section of mainstream sexist American society, in which men are either offensively macho or insincerely sensitive and women cope through mechanisms of denial–or can’t cope and become hopelessly wracked by neuroses. Jill (Elizabeth Laidlaw) is a self-destructive neurotic who continually finds herself in abusive relationships with sleazy men like Gregory (Lawrence Novikoff), who claims to understand her needs and winds up belittling her and covering her body with Vaseline. Fifi (Suzanne Farkas) is a seemingly content circus performer, but her lack of self-assurance has led her to marry a piggish knife thrower named Omar (Nelson Russo), and she must walk an invisible tightrope to avoid inciting his anger.

What these characters have in common is the feeling of being unloved. Jill’s life has been a “mess of senseless pain,” while Fifi was resented by her mother and rejected by a father who was incapable of love. Omar feels his parents never praised him enough, and the Vaseline-toting Gregory sees himself as unable ever to meet the standards set for him by his highly successful father.

These quirky characters are brought together by an actor (what else?) named Austin (Kenny Williams). He also knows how it feels to be unloved but believes that the way to overcome this feeling is to act kindly toward one another. He takes the Vaseline-coated Jill to his apartment and draws her a warm bath so she might feel clean and pure and childlike once again. And when he joins Jill, Fifi, and Omar for dinner, Austin strips naked and holds up a mirror to them so that they might toss away their inhibitions and embrace each other’s humanity. “The best you can hope to do, to speed along the possibilities of life,” Austin tells them, “is approach another human being, be naked, and hold up a good mirror.”

Shanley’s intentions are certainly good, but strip away all the well-meaning philosophy and there’s not much of a play here–just a jerky progression of scenes and monologues connected by the playwright’s desire to tell us what ails our society and prescribe a cure, which amounts to little more than what we’ve heard dozens of times before. And, to be truthful, his philosophy is a little disingenuous. If Shanley truly intends us to “seize the day” and live life to the fullest, we probably won’t sit through many more of his plays. For someone who’s so concerned with the passivity of modern man, Shanley has created a world that’s surprisingly stagnant and uninventive. Personally, I’d rather be shown Shanley’s vision of a perfect society than have him introduce me to a naked guy who’s going to lecture me for a half hour about what’s wrong with mine.

When Austin describes life as a series of beautiful, fleeting moments set against a background of struggles, in essence he’s describing Shanley’s play, too. Leaving behind all the philosophical funk, there are wonderfully sublime moments in Strawdog’s production, moments that linger in the mind much longer than any of the playwright’s sage advice: Williams doing a hilarious bossa nova while Laidlaw giddily plays with rubber ducks in a bathtub, Russo swearing madly as his knives miss their target, and the company singing a hilarious indictment of modern society to the tune of “God Bless Ye, Merry Gentlemen.”

This is truly an excellent production, and certainly the most professional to grace the Strawdog stage in quite some time. Richard Shavzin’s precise, good-humored direction has eliminated some of the hit-or-miss quality that at times marred Strawdog’s intelligent, ambitious efforts. It’s unfortunate that Shanley’s play embodies all too well his vision of today’s America. I’d guess that if Shanley were asked to describe life he’d say, “It’s worth living for the moments, but there are far too few of them within the funk.”

Ditto for the play.