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A Man of the Moment

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Hello, Bob

Retro Theatre

at the Chopin Theatre

I Came to New York to Write

Aardvark

at the Organic Theater Company Greenhouse

The biographical note at the back of Robert Patrick's Cheep Theatricks notes that "Mr. Patrick lives in a brown suede suitcase and is available for travel wherever his plays are done." Indeed, the author of this delicious collection of plays from the 1960s has always been among the most itinerant of artists, from his peripatetic childhood in the southwest to the day when, as a teenager, he hightailed it to New York and landed smack-dab in the damp, camp womb of off-off-Broadway, the legendary Caffe Cino in Greenwich Village. There he worked as playwright, actor, director, and doorman in the company of such unknowns as Lanford Wilson, Marshall Mason, Tom Eyen, Maria Irene Fornes, William Hoffman, and John Guare.

Patrick's journeys brought him to Chicago for one extended period in the mid-1970s, when he was resident playwright at an underrated theater at Halsted and Armitage called At the Drama Shelter. It was at about the same time that this quintessential fringe faerie enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame thanks to the Broadway production of his Kennedy's Children. That searing portrait of a drifting, disillusioned generation brought its author a bit of mainstream attention that lasted a considerably briefer moment than Kennedy's shining Camelot; but young actors continued to be attracted by the prolific playwright's distinctive character studies with their oddball, ephemeral mixture of whimsy, irony, bitterness, and caustic compassion for the endless human cycle of hope and disappointment.

Twenty years after his stint in off-Loop theater, a new generation of artists is mining Patrick's canon. Though his writing isn't going to overturn the reputations of guys like Albee and Horovitz and Shepard and Mamet, his quirky, little-known pieces are a refreshing change of pace from these much-produced lions. By sheer coincidence (or fate, if you prefer), two youthful theater groups are presenting Patrick plays this month--an unintended rotating repertory that constitutes a mini revival. It also represents an opportunity for the playwright to revisit his old stomping grounds (he'll be in Chicago this weekend for a round of receptions and book signings). The Retro Theatre, which established a relationship with Patrick by doing his short plays in their "Evening at the Caffe Cino" series, has taken over the Chopin Theatre's basement to present the Chicago premiere of Hello, Bob, a 1990 collection of monologues spoken by people whom Patrick encountered as he toured the country as a Famous Playwright. (Again by coincidence, the Retro show opened last weekend, almost exactly 20 years to the day after Kennedy's Children opened on Broadway.) And a company called Aardvark is offering the local debut of I Came to New York to Write, a series of short scenes from the Cheep Theatricks book depicting the artistic inhabitants of a Manhattan apartment between 1955 and 1969, the year the script was first produced.

Given that most of the actors, directors, and designers involved in these shows were barely walking (if indeed they were born) the last time Patrick had a high profile here, it's not surprising that the most notable flaw in both productions is their lack of period flavor. This is a more serious problem in Hello, Bob since the play depends on the audience's understanding of events in Patrick's life for its full effect. The repeated references to Patrick's fame, for instance, are likely to seem outrageously self-promotional if you don't sense the playwright's self-deprecating chuckle, reminding us how illusory that fame was--and in Steve Reily's Retro staging you too often don't.

One character after another fawns over the unseen playwright: a teacher invites him to Robert Patrick Day at a Kansas high school; another instructor rages against the big, bad, bigoted bureaucrats who forbid her to cast black students in white roles because it would undermine "the author's intent"; Tennessee Williams dishes with him over the fickleness of drama critics; a New York Times interviewer admits being "under orders" to make Patrick look bad in a feature because Kennedy's Children was "discovered" by the London press; a star-fucking cabdriver offers sex in the backseat; a cheerfully amoral hustler explains how the money Patrick will pay him is going toward his college costs. But very rarely do these vignettes reveal Patrick's underlying irony--or the loneliness and disconnection that permeate the words but too seldom the performances.

A few scenes stand out because the actors reveal Patrick's quirky, emotionally ambivalent way with character: Blake Cadkin as Patrick's bisexual boyfriend, fighting back tears as he ends their affair because Broadway hype has taken over their relationship; Tom Hietter as a neurotic ex-lover who looks like he'd literally kill for a drink when he and Patrick meet at Phebe's (the Sardi's of the East Village); Shawn Yardley as a Bel Air socialite terrified her husband will find out she used to be a "superstar" in underground sex and drug movies; Janet Tuegel as Lucille, a homeless woman who puts Patrick's theatrical experiments--she calls them "spearmints"--in perspective by explaining that every time he closes a show and throws out the costumes she gets a new set of clothes. But the production as a whole doesn't show how the scenes inform one another, nor does it convey the emotional cost of Patrick's dedication to a footloose fringe lifestyle.

I Came to New York to Write is more effective, in part because the script doesn't rely on the viewer's knowledge of Patrick's career. Set in one apartment over 14 years, the play concerns a series of people who've descended on the Big Apple from Nowheresville to find their mission if not their fortune as novelists, playwrights, actors, and the like. Though some of the material is at least quasi-autobiographical, all the sketches stand on their own as ingenious, subtly poignant explorations of manic humor. A would-be literary hostess entertains a struggling novelist--with a sexy surprise twist worthy of an off-Broadway O. Henry. A lazy playwright enjoys his own design for living, lolling in bed listening to his wife read his script aloud while his boyfriend serves breakfast. Former lovers enjoy a reunion marred only slightly by news of the drug-OD death of one of the woman's other boyfriends. A neurotic gay writer, uptight about his age and weight, tries to scare away the young stud he's picked up at a party. A liberal writer tries to befriend the burglar who's broken into the apartment--and offends the Catholic crook with a casually blasphemous joke. The girlfriend of a film actor arranges one final meeting between him and his previous girlfriend, recently released from a mental ward. And, in the show's highlight, a pair of unemployed mid-60s "pop people" dazzle each other with a litany of pop-culture references, distracting themselves from their poverty by turning their depressed existence into a Judy Garland musical.

This scene, performed with dancerly aplomb by Alexandra Billings and Mark Joslyn as the two-person mod squad, captures nearly perfectly the Patrick aesthetic: frivolous but probing, manically charged but permeated with longing for cultural and personal connection. Billings especially is breathtaking, not only in this scene but as the self-styled literary hostess, worrying that helping young artists won't make it in a culture where the best way to get ahead is to sleep with the right people. Though I've often found Billings uncredible and exaggerated in the past (owing sometimes to incompetent direction), here she makes a major acting breakthrough, combining stylized attitude with an underlying emotional investment and vulnerability that recall the young Barbara Harris--a perfect role model considering when the play is set.

If Billings's performance is director Ann Filmer's great success, like Retro's Reily she also fails to convey the period. The music that plays during scene changes, as two stagehands giddily redecorate the set, is often confusingly inappropriate: an out-of-tune Liza Minnelli belting "New York, New York" might suggest the location but not the era (it's a 70s imitation of a 40s song), and rock and roll selections are wrong for characters who are much more likely to love bebop.

Well, whaddaya want? These are Reagan's children, not Kennedy's. But in their exploration of unfamiliar territory, they're Robert Patrick's children too; it's encouraging to see a new generation helping us rediscover one of fringe theater's quirkiest talents. Hello, Bob. Welcome back.

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