THE HISTORY OF BOWLING, Victory Gardens Theater. In his rich new comedy about an epileptic woman who befriends and falls in love with a quadriplegic, Chicagoan Mike Ervin not only writes about the disabled without sentimentality but has enough piss and vinegar to attack those who infantilize and disempower them. (Jerry Lewis is never mentioned by name, though his biography is on the nightstand of Ervin's male lead.)
Not for a minute does Ervin indulge in movie-of-the-week homilies. Sure, the two lovers change each other a bit--all lovers do that--but they don't redeem each other or learn to love life in spite of everything, blah blah blah. Ervin instead offers deceptively simple portraits of flawed but essentially likable human beings: the fresh, energetic, but somewhat self-pitying epileptic; the slightly bitter but very witty quadriplegic; a blind and deaf man who plays on women's sympathies to get easy sex.
What really makes The History of Bowling spark, though, is director Susan Nussbaum's flair for scenes that are uncomplicated and emotionally clear yet very funny. Again and again her pitch-perfect cast finds the comedy behind Ervin's bittersweet lines, as when Doran Schrantz delivers a heartfelt monologue about having a seizure during a pep rally only to have Robert Ness giggle helplessly in his wheelchair at her story. Less gifted writers and directors would have played the scene for pathos. But Nussbaum and Ervin choose to laugh the laugh we laugh to keep from crying. --Jack Helbig