After Magritte/The American Dream | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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After Magritte/The American Dream


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Chroma-Zone Productions
at Mary-Arrchie Theatre

Forget what trash novelist Jacqueline Susann said. Sometimes once is enough. There are plays that benefit from repeat viewings, every performance uncovering a new layer of meaning. Then there are plays that pretty much say everything they have to say the first time.

One would hardly call Tom Stoppard's After Magritte or Edward Albee's The American Dream an unfamiliar work. There seems to be at least one production of each of these suckers here every year. I'm sure there are plenty of logical reasons to continue reviving both--they're short and written by reputable playwrights, and they feature small casts and uncomplicated sets. But anyone who's already seen the plays will find little in Chroma-Zone's mediocre production that's new or exciting, and anyone somehow unfamiliar with them will most likely leave wondering why either is purported to be a classic.

Stoppard's After Magritte is a clever enough one-act, challenging its audience to separate illusion from reality and to acknowledge that what we perceive to be real isn't. Taking his cue from the brilliant artistic goofball Rene Magritte, Stoppard takes a surrealist approach to his play, demonstrating how one seemingly unremarkable incident can be interpreted in countless ways. He hinges his play on five loony individuals' contradictory perspectives of a peculiar man walking (or hopping) near the Tate Gallery, which is featuring an exhibit of Magritte's work. The exchanges between a man clad in a fly-fishing outfit, his tuba-playing mother, his dancing wife, and two bumbling detectives--about whether they saw a bearded convict with a football, a blind man with a tortoise, or a refugee from a minstrel show--are, like Magritte's works, hilariously whimsical and disorienting.

An early work of Stoppard's, the play is a bit precious: he seems more concerned with duplicating the effects of a surrealist painting than with creating a cohesive, intelligent work. But despite the sophomoric philosophizing about perceptions, the play, with its many inspired sight gags and turns of phrase, can be a hoot.

Unfortunately, Chroma-Zone can't get past the required dialect. The substandard British accents wouldn't be all that bad if they didn't render much of Stoppard's language virtually unintelligible. A couple of the performers sound a little like Eliza Doolittle with a mouthful of marbles trying to tell Henry Higgins exactly where it is that hurricanes hardly ever happen.

That which is understandable is frequently overplayed, excessive mugging and yelling taking the place of characterization. Jim Burrell's direction is often sloppy and unfocused: much movement, but little meaning behind it. Magritte might have appreciated the irony in each audience member being able to have a different impression of what's being said and done onstage, but I doubt that's what either Stoppard or Burrell had in mind.

Burrell's direction of The American Dream is more polished and focused, maybe because there's no tough dialogue to master. Nevertheless, Albee's play seems dated and annoying. Perhaps when it was introduced more than 30 years ago there was something revolutionary or shocking in its savage denunciation of the idealized picture of middle-class suburban life. Now it's just tired and obvious, because to ensure that his satire was understood Albee gave us cartoons instead of characters.

In Albee's spiteful vision of the perfect American household banal pleasantries cover up the hatred its occupants feel for one another. Here we have his vision of the typical American wife, a vindictive fortune hunter who talks sweetly to hide her evil intentions; the typical husband, a sloppy, ineffectual kvetch; the typical grandmother, a spry, foul-mouthed, borborygmic sneak; and the all-American boy, a drop-dead gorgeous shell with no heart, soul, or brain--only a desire for money.

What makes the play so tiresome is that the ideal it criticizes is no longer valid. Does anybody still take seriously the fantasy of Formica countertops, tuna casserole, mom in an apron, and dad in a bathrobe and slippers? Deconstructing the myth of the Dick Van Dyke/Donna Reed fantasyland may have been instructive in the late 50s and early 60s, but not anymore.

Here Albee's play is ill served by an overly loud and crass production, which makes the work seem even more bilious than it does on paper. Chroma-Zone treats the satire as if it were an obnoxious sketch for an episode of The Carol Burnett Show, overplaying the stereotypes for all they're worth. But even the most energetic performances can't pump life into this unpleasant play.

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