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Book of Cliches

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BOOK OF THE NIGHT

Goodman Theatre

RED TANGO

Chicago Actors Ensemble

Book of the Night is without doubt one of the best mediocre musicals I've ever seen. In fact, its mediocrity is so fully realized here, thanks to Robert Falls, that you'd almost certainly enjoy it. You might even think it was good.

That would probably be a mistake, though. Written by Louis Rosen and former Chicago folkie Thom Bishop, Book of the Night is an extraordinarily sweet but cliched and unfocused piece of work. The lack of focus isn't a devastating problem: After a while you can get used to the idea that there's no particular plot line or central character. You stop looking for conventional forms of coherence and relax into the only rationale you're offered--which is that Book of the Night is about the night itself, as experienced by a bunch of city dwellers whose connection with one another consists mainly in the fact that they all happen to be up late on a Saturday. It's more like a collage or a census of the night than a book.

The cliches are a lot more troublesome--though I suppose there's something to be said for the frank way they're deployed. With half the show set in places with kitschily hard-boiled names like the Empty Arms Hotel and the Midnight Bar and Grill, Book of the Night wears its obviousness on its sleeve, where obviousness no doubt belongs if it belongs at all. And where there's at least the possibility of its being mistaken for an aesthetic: a sort of sentimentalized version of urban grit a la Raymond Chandler or Nelson Algren.

But Algren and Chandler were never this banal. The 15 souls who go stumbling through Book of the Night are even more stereotypical than their generic titles imply. The cop, for instance, is a paunchy veteran who only wants to make it through his shift without getting killed. The young widow's lonely, and her son finds monsters in the shadows. The hotel desk clerk's seen it all. The charming black stud's had them all. The woman from room 220 would settle for just one good one. The Guatemalan maid and bellhop are lost in El norte, while the yuppish couple suffer separately through their common midlife crises.

The very notion of a summer night in the city is imagined in stereotypically romantic terms. You got your songs about solitude and hankerings, your songs about anonymity and islands of comfort, your songs about crimes of profit and passion. You got your "Rhythms of" and your "Things That Go Bump in" titles. And, of course, at the end, your weary-but-hopeful paean to the dawn.

That Bishop and Rosen's lyrics are often literate and warm and clever doesn't mitigate the creeping impression that there's absolutely nothing new here. And the repetitions of Rosen's monotonously competent score only make that impression more intense.

The only relief is Falls's marvelous direction. Combining a poetic imagination with glitzy showmanship and all the technical sophistication the Goodman can buy, Falls and company supply the resonances--and occasionally the simple foolishness--necessary to confer on Book of the Night some of the originality and power the authors don't seem to have provided. The young widow's nightmare of losing her son becomes heartbreakingly palpable in Falls's image of the child receding across the stage. The boy's own anxieties become sweetly manifest in the way choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge brings his stuffed toys to life. And then too, the drug dealer's staunch dedication to American economic principles becomes ridiculously obvious when he strips down to a red, white, and blue Evel Knievel-oid body suit and sings about it, backed by a girl trio wearing big hair and Gabriel Berry's literally incandescent dresses.

Nothing in Book of the Night communicates a sense of the urban beehive like John Boesche's amazing stream of slide projections, showing the changing lights in an apartment building's glass facade. Nothing in the score communicates a sense of the loneliness within the hive like Michael S. Philippi's surreal stream of beds--conveyed across the stage, incidentally, by the invisible prowess of Goodman's veteran production stage manager, Joseph Drummond.

The cast is exceedingly sharp. Keith Byron-Kirk: easy with his gorgeous voice as the Wishing Man. Vicki Lewis: endearingly nasal as the Wishing Woman. Hollis Resnik: offering a tour de force from an overstuffed chair as the anomic yuppie Jill. Jim Corti: your basic spark plug as the Dealer.

In a way Book of the Night reminds me of Walt Whitman's Song of Myself--an attempt to gather every disparate aspect of being into a single entity. "And these tend inward to me," said Whitman, "and I tend outward to them, / And such as it is to be of these more or less I am, / And of these one and all I weave the song of myself." Substitute the night for Walt and you've got the basic concept behind this musical. It's a noble and ambitious idea. Maybe it can even be done. But not Rosen and Bishop's way, not by reducing diversity down to representative types and broad generalities: the Cop, the Young Widow, the Desk Clerk, the Dealer, Yearning, Fear, Loneliness, Greed. Their musical expresses not the diversity of the all-in-one but a dull sort of sameness that can only be redeemed by infusions of human idiosyncrasy. Fortunately, Falls nearly achieves that redemption.

The Chicago Actors Ensemble's Red Tango is just the opposite of the Goodman's Book of the Night: a rough and approximate show built around a magnificently vital script.

Not that the script doesn't have its problems, too. An opera by Tom Yore based on Woyzeck (Georg Buchner's legendary 160-year-old fragment about a poor soldier who murders his common-law wife) and transplanted to South Africa, Red Tango is heavily burdened by interesting but unnecessary interpolations from a text by contemporary East German avant-garde playwright Heiner Muller.

And yet its mesmerizingly beautiful songs, its epic simplicity, its sense of a deep human wrong, and its rage over that wrong are powerful compensations. They even make up for the steam-room ambience in CAE's sweltering fifth-floor theater. This is not an easy one to sit through. It's uncomfortable, unkempt, uneven, and un-air-conditioned. But it's also a profound and committed work of art.

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