AN EVENING OF CHEEVER
Windy City Theater Company
at Pilsen East Center for the Arts
You'd never know from the Windy City Theater Company's show that John Cheever was one of the great short-story writers of this century. All of his cleverness, all of his wit, all of his grace--everything that made his stories wonderful and charming--is gone from these wrongheaded adaptations. It's replaced by broad comedy, shameless mugging, god-awful improvised dialogue, and incredibly unsubtle character development.
To make matters worse, each of the three one-act adaptations in "An Evening of Cheever" ruins his work in a different way. It's as if the director--Jane E. Dillingham--and the cast wanted to make a point of showing just how many ways there are of getting it wrong.
The first one-act, The Enormous Radio, based on the short story of the same name, concerns Jim and Irene Wescott, a pair of aspiring middle-class Manhattanites who love nothing so much as listening to classical music on the radio. One day their beloved radio goes on the fritz, and Jim replaces it with an expensive new one. Oddly enough, in a plot turn more reminiscent of Ray Bradbury than of Cheever, the Wescotts' new radio picks up conversations going on in other apartments in their building.
Just by twisting the dial, the Wescotts can hear a neighbor's nanny reading to the children, "a bitter family quarrel about an overdraft at the bank," or a loud cocktail party in 11-E. Eventually Jim and Irene become addicted to listening in on other people's lives, and Irene in particular is overwhelmed by the misery she hears. "Everybody's been quarreling," she moans to her husband. "They're all worried about money. Mrs. Hutchinson's mother is dying of cancer . . . some woman in this building is having an affair with the handyman . . . and Mr. Hendricks is going to lose his job in April." Jim's reaction to Irene's misery--"Why do you have to listen to this stuff if it makes you so miserable?"--proves to be the key question in a story that's as much about the way we moderns use mass media to escape our problems as it is about Jim and Irene.
In the hands of Dillingham et al, Cheever's complex story becomes a one-act soap opera, concerned mostly with the desperate, seamy lives of the people living around the Wescotts. The Wescotts themselves are all but lost, owing mainly to the decision to stage everything Irene hears on the radio: instead of merely hearing the neighbors the way the Wescotts do, we see them too. Jim and Irene become just another couple onstage. The Wescotts' magical radio becomes nothing more than a device that allows us to switch from one tawdry scene to another.
These scenes--created, I gather, through group improvisation--take gross liberties with Cheever's story and characters. People who are only names on the page are transformed, through the magic of theater games, into all the usual improv stereotypes--the loud, insensitive working-class husband, the mousy, confused housewife. These types are never happier than when they're burning up stage time with the most banal dialogue or deflating the drama of the moment by telling us what they should be showing us. "I just feel numb," one neighbor cries out in a moment of faked self-realization. "I don't feel happy. I just feel depressed." God, imagine how John Cheever must feel.
The other two one-acts fare, sadly, not much better. The Sorrows of Gin is a better adaptation than the first largely because the director decided to lift Cheever's dialogue word for word, but it still fails to measure up to Cheever's original. His story is a moody, lyrical meditation on chemical abuse in an upper-class family: Mr. Lawton, clearly an alcoholic himself, keeps firing his household staff for drinking his gin. In the Windy City Theater's hands, it's an aimless play that starts out being about Mr. Lawton and the weird way he keeps firing the hired help, and ends up being about Amy Lawton, an oddly untroubled little girl who inexplicably runs away but is caught by the police and taken back home.
Although the last one-act, The Death of Justina, is the best adaptation of the evening, it's undercut by Dillingham's ham-fisted direction and her cast's annoyingly amateurish acting. A darkly comic story about a man who discovers he can't bury his recently deceased aunt because his subdivision is not zoned for death, "The Death of Justina" seems well suited to the stage: much of Cheever's original first-person narration would make marvelous stage monologues.
Unfortunately, George Tafelski, who plays the story's first-person narrator, is hardly the actor to cast as the urbane and well-read Mark. He doesn't seem to understand half of what he says, and the half he does understand he ruins with his heavy-handed country preacher's delivery. Even more annoying are Michael J. Singer as Dr. Hunter and Tim Studer as Mayor J. Slocum: they mug and joke their way through their roles, stealing the focus at every opportunity and never for a moment convincing anyone that they are anything but a couple of actors showing off.
Such acting is all too common in this show. "Look, Mom," these actors seem to say with every painfully self-conscious movement. "I'm acting! I'm really acting!" Which is fine if you happen to be friends with or related to or going out with one of them. It gives you a chance to say after the show: "Yes, I saw. You were acting." But it's not so great if you were hoping to be entertained.
Of the rest of the cast, only Amy E. Warren, who makes her Chicago debut with this play, seems to understand what it means to create a living, breathing character. Her portrayal of 13-year-old Amy in The Sorrows of Gin was so convincing that I was sure she was just some real-life adolescent. But in The Death of Justina, she was equally convincing as a corporate secretary in her 20s. I hope this debut is not the last we see of her, though I can't say the same of these failed adaptations.