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Conspiracy of Illusion


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Commons Theatre

Now that glasnost has sunk in a little and theater companies are busy running exchanges back and forth between Omaha and Aktyubinsk, there's a lot of talk about differences between American and Soviet sensibilities. The Soviet actors thrive on angst, I hear, while the Americans are fairly perky. The Soviets are preoccupied with spiritual struggle, while the Americans want to talk politics.

It's a fascinating cultural lesson--yet another benefit of the Pax Gorbacheviana. But you don't necessarily have to go all the way to Kazakhstan to learn it. Not when the Chicago theater community so kindly offers us a way to compare Soviet and American psyches right here at home. Between the Goodman Theatre's recent production of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh and the Commons Theatre's current production of Maksim Gorky's The Lower Depths, it's possible to watch the theatrical geniuses of two very different societies contend with the pain of living in the world.

Written in 1902 and generally considered to be Gorky's great stage work, The Lower Depths might easily have been the model for Iceman. Or it might just as easily be one half of a marvelous coincidence. Either way, it anticipates the situations and preoccupations of the O'Neill play with uncanny exactness.

Iceman situates us in the bar at Harry Hope's flophouse, where a small tribe of losers drink and dream their way out of an ugly reality. Unable to acknowledge their true condition, the whores style themselves "tarts" while the drunks either promise they'll get straight tomorrow, melt into a sweetly misremembered past, or assume an air of romantic resignation.

Into this land of happy delusions walks Hickey--a hail-fellow hardware salesman with a reputation for going on periodic benders, during which he's widely regarded as the jolliest guy you'd ever want to meet. Unfortunately for the folks at Harry Hope's, however, Hickey's recently changed his ways: he comes to Harry's intent on liberating the dreamers from their dreams. He lobbies them hard to give up their false hopes and accept what he supposes is the peace that comes of living without illusions. The result is anything but peaceful.

Now consider The Lower Depths. The flophouse here is more a flop-boardinghouse, set up in the cellar of a bourgeois couple's home; the liquor's carried in from somewhere down the street--a czarist package store, presumably. But the resident types are remarkably similar to those in Iceman, and their conspiracy of illusion can be every bit as intense. Nastya the whore invents an autobiography based on romantic novels; a ruined baron takes refuge in memories of coffee with cream; a has-been actor reenacts his glory days; and Andrey the locksmith puts all his focus and faith in the salvation of work. Even the more hard-bitten tenants have their outlets: If they can't trick themselves into believing pipe dreams, they can at least buck themselves up with cynicism and games. And, of course, vodka. Practically everybody in the cellar drinks like there's no tomorrow--which is more or less the case as far as they're concerned.

There's a Hickey for these lost souls as well, but a very different sort from the one O'Neill provides. Gorky's Hickey is an old wanderer named Luka, who shows up just in time to nurse the locksmith's wife through her final illness. Luka's every bit as driven, every bit as magnetic as Hickey; but where Hickey's portrayed as a sort of existential salesman--the all-American huckster, paradoxically hawking an end to dreams--Luka represents a more distinctly Russian archetype: that of the penitent soul who travels the world empty-handed, seeking an elusive vision even as she exudes a mysterious wisdom. Dostoyevski would have recognized Luka.

The crucial difference between Hickey and Luka isn't a matter of style, though. It's a matter of vision. Far from exploding anybody's fantasies of a better life, Luka positively nurtures them. Asserts them. Even invents them, when she has to, as a way of transcending the despair of poverty and breaking its hold on the spirit. In a lovely passage early on, Luka paints nothing less than a celestial vision for the locksmith's dying wife; from there, it's easy for her to accept Nastya's sweet lies, or to encourage the actor's dream of kicking alcohol, or to nudge the young king of the cynics--a certain Vassily Pepel--toward a sense of himself as something more than a lowlife thief. "Whatever a man believes in," Luka says, "exists."

The kicker in all this is that Hickey's clear-eyed American debunking and Luka's mystic Russian nurturing both lead to the same tragic end. Class, addiction, and hopelessness reinforce one another in both plays, and both cultures, to prevent genuine transcendence--something to remember when the government, any government, tells you it can eliminate drugs without attacking the economic order. In the United States, at least, drugs are the economic order.

Like I say, a fascinating cultural lesson. There's an education for an audience in the Goodman and Commons shows. And for a director, too: as respectably mounted as it is, Patrick Nugent's production of The Lower Depths could use some of the rigor Robert Falls brought to Iceman. Nugent's direction here is at once too vague about essential issues of character and too literal about what ought to be implied: the play's relevance to current events. I get the impression, for instance, that Ned Mochel is capable of strong work as the thief Vassily Pepel; but as things stand now, I can't even figure out what his Vassily sees in the alleged love of his life, Natasha. Likewise, Glenn A. Bugala's baron is supposed to be utterly abandoned to vodka--but there's no suggestion of an alcoholic's hunger in his performance.

These and other pivotal elements of the show are left unexplored, while everything we might have been trusted to infer is rendered painfully obvious--the most glaring example being Nugent's decision to put his ensemble in 1990s street clothes for the last act, after having dressed them according to period, just so we won't miss the fact that Gorky's offering us a Lesson for Our Times.

Still, certain bits come through the confusion beautifully. Morgan McCabe's wizened, wise Luka generates a loving calm--an aura so strong you don't realize how completely it supports the production until it's gone. Michael Nowak's joshing, wrecked furrier, Bubnov, is a collection of exquisite details: I was especially delighted at how he cheats at checkers using a dying woman for cover. Judith Easton, finally, is as nasty as can be as the bourgeois landlord's wife.

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