Victory Gardens Studio Theater
OUT ON A WHIM
at the Roxy
Watching Necktie Party is a little like experiencing the delirium of fever, where the overheated brain forces out one obsessive image after another; the wild rush of disconnected mental pictures is maddening because it feels arbitrary and out of control.
I don't say this to put down Lonnie Carter's play; it's just a warning not to bring a fully functioning cerebral cortex to the Victory Gardens Studio Theater. Nor, perhaps, to this review. To work, Necktie Party must never cool off into coherence, and director Dennis Zacek keeps the thermostat set high. But to review Necktie Party is, perhaps, to put it on ice, to force method onto its madness.
What Carter works well at is stringing together wild words--puns, neologisms, paradoxes, obscenities; sometimes they're just cascading sounds charged with such a ton of energy they make passionate sense while you hear them. What Carter seems to be pursuing is a cumulative if not cohesive word picture of a society he thinks is sick from seeking a security that perversely attracts its opposite.
Set against Linda Lane's abstract backdrop of color-speckled crates and suspended wooden slats, two couples, the Colts and the Winchesters--all former Chicagoans--gather to celebrate the husbands' 45th birthdays. The party is the pretext for Carter's free-form, delirious variations on the theme of fear. Donald Winchester (P.J. Brown) is white, while the others--his wife, Alice Colt Winchester (Cora Perkins), and their friends Earl Colt (Ed Wheeler) and Evanescent Wilcox Winchester Colt (Leslie Holland)--are black. But, as the names suggest and their anecdotes about Chicago confirm, the four are, like their memories and hatreds, intricately interconnected.
The play's most straightforward moments come in the opening scene when, in a sort of spoken fugue, the four brag about their attempts to steal books and ponder why some folks are suspected and others aren't. Though Evanescent holds that "integrity lies within," she knows it's the outside by which people today increasingly are judged. Carter's characters clearly want to foil this hair-trigger bias: Earl boasts how he can desensitize a book to pass the electronic eye; Donald breaks into a fantasy in which, one at a time, he pilfers a million books and takes control of all the power within them. But these escapist fantasies aren't enough. They rail at a security guard named Beatrice who'd demanded to see a receipt of purchase; when there was nothing to incriminate you, she made you prove you didn't steal the book.
According to his notes on the play, Carter is concerned with how easily we accept the idea that certain people (here black but they could just as well be poor, female, or gay) are guilty until proven otherwise. At its most decipherable, Necktie Party imagines what happens when you can't or won't prove you're innocent. The dialogue breaks into disjointed riffs. Aggressively tossing around a basketball, Earl and Donald practice a verbal sparring that quickly sinks to racist taunts. Alice triumphantly accepts an imaginary award. Evanescent seduces an unseen stranger. Donald smirkingly prides himself on his "crimes of romance." Alice rails against having been born black ("It was given me by mistake," this being "born into blackness"), but Evanescent counters, "It covers you but it does not remove the light." And periodically they all dump on the "daddy" who keeps putting them down.
Carter's images and topics (blaxploitation films, cultural assimilation, abortion, sex as swimming, a drunk in a park, welfare mothers in sleek limos) tumultuously rush at you and recede before they register. Building their obsessions, the Colts and Winchesters conjure the different sides of the city they escaped from. Donald recalls a dunk tank at Riverview where a black man screamed insults at the whites who tried to sink him; the memory clashes against Earl's revenge fantasy involving Sinbad, the late Lincoln Park Zoo gorilla, and about the black man's sexual triumph over a world of troubles. The birthday party becomes, if only in spirit, a necktie party.
Finally, bellowing behind a scrim, the Father (Tony Smith) catalogs his hard life and the high hopes he'd had while heading for Chicago--and ferociously denounces his children for selling out. Staring into the dark, the foursome wince at the indictment--but they otherwise ignore it, and revert to their earlier book-stealing braggadocio. Without the slightest attempt to sum things up, the play just lets go. Guilt and innocence remain abstractions we can only hint at.
Given this play's delight in being difficult, that's all the resolution anyone could expect. So little here is accessible to a first hearing that what you do grasp can pass as profound precisely because of all you don't: "If I don't understand this," the playgoer thinks, "it just proves how deep this script really is!" Well, then again it may not. You may decide the playwright's self-indulgent obscurity camouflages how little he has to say.
Necktie Party, however, is not that easily dismissed. If, as Freud said, an uncompleted task is never forgotten, the same applies to fever-ridden plays. Carter's Sovereign State of Boogedy Boogedy (which Zacek also staged with obsessive fury) was propelled by raw energy and invention. In Necktie Party, Carter's flurry of images never really adds up; it simply reflects a chaos we're too used to. Like Victory Gardens's companion show, The Colored Museum, Necktie Party ponders how easily we presume the guilt that makes innocence impossible to prove. Too bad Carter says it all so vaguely; he lets a lot of people, black and white, off the hook.
Though Zacek's blocking sometimes feels too static for the speeches and the actors hesitate in their line readings, by the end these Colts and Winchesters persuade us that they understand what is going on. Some folks clearly flourish on fever.
The whims indulged in Out on a Whim, the Illegitimate (Near North Side Story) Players' latest comedy revue, aren't that far out: a TV kids' show hostess named Miss Bunny who teaches the tykes to send cash or Big Bird gets it in the neck; a killer Chia Pet that stalks and kills the comics who insulted it; a sort of Assholes Anonymous for chronic jerks; obnoxious patrons who ruin a piano bar act with groaner jokes.
Theirs may not be the last great comedy routines of our time, but under the direction of Marlene Zuccaro these six yuksters (Maureen FitzPatrick, George Seegebrecht, Catherine Keller, Dov Weinstock, Keith Cooper, and Doug Armstrong) clearly know what they do best--which is administering pleasant little shocks of recognition--play to their strengths in almost every skit, and know when to pull the plug on a premise that's losing laughs.
The best material is of the table-turning variety, like a send-up of the (recently repealed) Florida loophole that allowed citizens to carry unconcealed firearms ("No Shirt, No Gun, No Service"). In a spoof of TV police dramas, Armstrong plays an unarmed and dangerous man, his harmlessness terrifying the gun-toting Floridians; calmly they try to reason with this psychopath ("Here, take the gun!"). Stuff like this just might make the Illegitimate Players the second Second City.
They also can turn the tables on audience expectations. Keller and FitzPatrick play two nerdy coeds cruising for men by dropping facts in the library; what they get is not what you were sure you saw coming. The vigilante craze fuels a hit-and-run vignette depicting a lone woman unwillingly protected by a Guardian Shriner (a brilliantly mugging Cooper, the wildest joker in this deck). He in turn is attacked by a Guardian Scumbag--who's disarmed by an enforcer from NOW. (Well, if there's never a cop when you need one . . . )
A busy Ken Johnson at the piano-synthesizer supplies the upbeat music: a peppy but perverse salute to drunk driving sung by losers in the Heidelberg House on County K--an endangered tavern on the Wisconsin border ("If you're going to drink, drive slow" and "People walk in front of me, victims fall behind"); and, bravest whim of all, a 40s-style salute to Ronnie and World War III, complete with a bosomy Kate Smith (FitzPatrick) belting out "Drug Free America!" Instant nostalgia, yes; why wait 40 years?
The Illegitimates could push themselves further (more joking against type, more than one running joke, less reliance on merely reversing sitcom expectations, a wilder wackiness than preying on everyday incongruity). But right now there isn't a dull funny bone in their rubber bodies. Catch the I-word.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.