Chicago Actors Theatre
at Big Game Theatre
Terrible, unfair things happen to the people in Craig Lucas's scripts. In Longtime Companion, the recently released movie he wrote, a circle of friends is decimated by AIDS. In Prelude to a Kiss, his Tony Award-nominated play now on Broadway, a young couple's honeymoon is disrupted when the wife's body is invaded by the soul of a dying old man. In Reckless, seen earlier this year at Steppenwolf Theatre, a do-gooder is hunted by the hit man her husband has hired to kill her.
And in Blue Window, which Mark McDonough has staged for the young Chicago Actors Theatre, a woman named Libby is plagued by memories of the tragedy that befell her and her husband several years ago. I won't give away the nature of that tragedy, but it's a doozy.
Lucas has been accused by many critics, myself included, of having it in for his characters. But I think now that that accusation is incorrect. Lucas identifies with his most victimized characters; the absurd comedy that permeates most of these works is the result of a victim's paranoid sense of humor.
This doesn't make the characters any easier to take. Libby, whose dinner party for a group of friends is the focus of the play's action, is a dithering neurotic whose insecurities, funny at first, make her incredibly annoying by the end of the evening, when Lucas unveils his shocker of an ending. And the guests at her party--less profoundly afflicted than their hostess but full of woes nonetheless--aren't a whole lot easier to take. There's a lesbian couple--one's a writer, the other's a family counselor, and both are arrogant and domineering. There's a heterosexual couple--he plays guitar badly and ignores her growing distance, while she thinks out loud about how everyone is looking for connection. And there are two single men: Norbert, a nice, quiet guy who's giving Libby parachuting lessons and who tries to make love to her after the other guests have left, and Griever, Libby's friend and fellow group-therapy member, who interrupts her late-evening encounter with Norbert with a series of ill-advised phone calls.
Griever's name suggests the key to the play: survivor's guilt. Lucas has acknowledged that in the mid-1980s, when this was written, he was channeling a lot of grief and anger about losing friends to AIDS into his plays even when he wasn't writing openly about the topic. Blue Window, with its title image paradoxically representing hope and despair, is full of self-accusing sadness, even as it also deals humorously with the pretensions and foibles of arty Manhattanites.
The play is also concerned with the music of voices--a sometimes grating and cacophonous music in the case of these particular voices, but music nonetheless. Lucas has structured his characters' dialogues fugally--at one point to suggest different discussions taking place simultaneously; at another, to depict a party at which everyone is talking over everybody else. There is also a bit of real music in a song by William Bolcom, "The Office Girl's Lament," in which a character meditates on the foolishness of so many people looking for the same thing in so many conflicting ways.
But though director McDonough seems aware of the play's musicality, he buries it. Taped background music, drippily sentimental in a pop/new-age vein, smooths out the rhythms of the speech. The cast is also ill attuned to the musical sonorities of the dialogue, which needs as careful attention to intonation and pace as to character. Without the extra level of artistry the play's musical structure demands, we're left with the same peculiar mix of banality and grotesquerie that also sank Lucas's Reckless at Steppenwolf. The fairly straightforward Longtime Companion is much stronger dramatically than the earlier whimsical plays. These require a director and cast with exceptional vision and technique and the ability to work against the script's cruelty in order to bring out its humanity. None of these qualities is in evidence here.
The folks in Robert Chesley's Jerker are also looking for connection. And though this comedy-drama about consensual telephone masturbation is mischievously subtitled The Helping Hand, Chesley is also concerned with the voice: what it sounds like in different circumstances, the musical rhythms and sonorities of two voices in dialogue, and what those voices' effects on listeners can be.
Chesley's play, seen last summer at the same theater but remounted here with a different director and somewhat different cast, tells of two men who conduct a sexual affair over the telephone. They can't see each other, but we can see them both; what we know about them is that one, Bert, is young, very handsome, and quite active, while the other, J.R., is paralyzed from the waist down (probably from service in the Vietnam war) and as a result confines himself sexually to masturbation. J.R. initiates the anonymous affair with an obscene call to Bert; Bert is at first nonplussed, but emerges as an eager and able partner in their mutual fantasy trips--until he develops AIDS and stops returning J.R.'s calls. ("I may say oh, oh, oh, oh," Judy Garland's voice croons on Bert's answering machine at the end, echoing the orgasmic sighs he has uttered over the phone throughout the play, "but no one will hear.")
The politics of anger about AIDS are the same in Chesley's play as in Lucas's, but more overt. And as played here by Darren Stephens as Bert and Richard Beech as J.R., under Timothy M.P. Lynch's direction, there's more direct anger. The interest in musical language is also similar; Stephens and Beech strike a very lovely balance between naturalism (and a particularly gritty naturalism at that--the play lives up to its description as "a pornographic elegy") and poetic lyricism, to remind us of the emotional and sexual potency of the human voice.