2 DAYS OF LIVING HELL WITH SALLY JESSY RAPHAEL
Sliced Bread Productions
at the Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center
TOUR DE FARCE
Wisdom Bridge Theatre
Chicago-based actors Tani Freiwald and Wes Bailey committed the cardinal sin of TV talk shows: they lied to the cameras. Repeatedly. Starting in 1986 they appeared on shows such as Geraldo, Sally Jessy Raphael, and The Oprah Winfrey Show, playing all manner of people with sexual problems. On one show Freiwald played a woman who hated sex, on another she played a sex surrogate. On Geraldo Bailey played a 34-year-old virgin "cured" by Freiwald and on Sally Jessy Raphael a husband whose marriage was given a boost by a few sessions with Freiwald.
It all came apart in September 1988, when a story about their escapades appeared in their hometown paper, the Omaha World-Herald. For a few quick weeks they were big news, appearing on myriad local and national radio and TV programs, including Entertainment Tonight and CBS This Morning. Then their 15 minutes ran out.
2 Days of Living HELL With Sally Jessy Raphael is their story. Written by Bailey and Freiwald in collaboration with William Bullion and Noel Olken and directed by Bailey and Olken, the play is unabashedly biased. That is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness.
On the one hand, the intense anger Bailey and Freiwald clearly feel about the whole affair--in the end they were dumped on by the talk-show hosts and by the sex therapist who recruited them to appear with him on TV--makes this play far more interesting than an objective recitation of the facts could ever be. Bailey and Freiwald clearly don't care how many sacred cows they gore in the process of telling their tale. Sally Jessy Raphael, John Tesh, Oprah, the tabloid-TV industry as a whole--all receive well-deserved whippings.
On the other hand, the authors sometimes resort to the most sophomoric ridicule to make their points. Their mocking portrait of Geraldo Rivera is so over the top--his mustache is clearly taped on, his off-camera demeanor exaggeratedly high-handed and egotistical--it's unbelievable, especially given that it's played alongside their dead-on portrait of Sally Jessy Raphael.
As Rivera, Bullion shouldn't have to resort to mugging to make this gasbag seem foolish. Just quoting him accurately is ridicule enough. When questioned about the affair Geraldo said, "My first reaction when I heard this was to take this lying wimp [Bailey], who probably has all these sexual problems--I mean, if you ever saw this guy--and put his nose in something smelly and squishy."
Happily, most of the time the authors show considerably more restraint, especially in the scenes that reveal the inherent contradictions of TV talk shows. We're supposed to be watching a real event, yet the producers still feel it necessary to rev up the audience before the show begins, going so far as to explain how and when to applaud enthusiastically.
If the production were as sophisticated as the script, this would be quite a show. Unfortunately, the level of acting is generally too low to make the script fly. Too many actors in this company deliver their lines woodenly or can't maintain a convincing character, which is deadly in a production where actors are asked to play two or three roles. In fact, of the 11 actors in the cast only Jill Gleeson (Freiwald), Colin Jones (sex therapist Dr. Dauw), and Beka (a wonderful Sally Jessy Raphael) deliver the kind of subtle, multilayered performance the intelligent, humorous text deserves.
Tour de Farce, playing at Wisdom Bridge, suffers from the opposite problem. The two-person cast (Steve Carell and Hollis Resnik) is excellent, but Kingsley Day and Philip Lazebnik's play is a letdown. Based on the cute premise that all the people in this ten-character farce will be played by two very harried actors, Tour de Farce never really manages to be about anything else. (When Michael Frayn used a similar trick in his one-act farce Chinamen--two actors, one male, one female, play the hosts and all the guests at a dinner party--he used the device to make a satirical point about middle-class conformity.)
Day and Lazebnik's story is pretty thin. The jumping-off point--the author of Marriage Is Forever must hide from a prying reporter the fact that his marriage is failing--is a good one, but the plot never becomes complicated enough to drive a farce. The authors do toss an assortment of odd characters into the story--a philandering senator, a press-hungry bimbo, a singing nun, an existential TV cameraman--any one of whom could have provided a fully realized second or third story line. (Georges Feydeau, the master of French farces, wove together five more or less complete story lines in A Flea in Her Ear.)
The lack of a compelling story is only a symptom of a greater problem with this play: running gags that overstay their welcome, characters that are paper-thin. Even the play's protagonists, Herbert and Rebecca Gladney, are little more than a costume, a hairstyle, and one or two comic ticks (Herbert slicks his hair, wears glasses, and whines; Rebecca has a red wig and dislikes Herbert). This becomes a little tiresome as the play progresses and we don't learn anything new about them.
Not that Carell and Resnik don't do everything they can to make these characters live. They switch characters with a grace and speed that's simply astonishing. Not an entrance is muffed, not a costume change screwed up. Resnik (performing with a broken foot, no less) proves herself a master chameleon as she disappears into each of the five characters she plays. A year ago I admired the way she became Edith Piaf body and soul, but that was nothing compared to the five bodies and souls she becomes over the course of this show. A feat that's all the more amazing given that she often has to switch characters in a matter of seconds.
It's a pity that Day and Lazebnik, best known for such off-Loop comedy hits of the early and mid-80s as Byrne, Baby, Byrne and Summer Stock Murder, couldn't come up with a stronger vehicle for two such terrific actors.