Foolin' Around With Infinity | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Foolin' Around With Infinity


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Blind Parrot Productions

I requested a copy of the script when I called Blind Parrot to make reservations for Foolin' Around With Infinity. But when I arrived, there was no script for me. During intermission, the woman who had promised me the script tracked me down in the lobby. She had just had a baby, she said, and had taken to carrying around two bags--one full of stuff for the theater and one full of diapers. As she ran out of the house that evening, she grabbed the wrong bag. She couldn't offer me a script, she said, but she could offer me a diaper. A diaper was incredibly appropriate, for Steven Dietz's play is full of shit.

Foolin' Around With Infinity purports to be a meditation on the horror and the madness of nuclear war. But Dietz is just foolin' around with words and images. In fact, according to a program note by the playwright (which is read during the play by one of the actors), Dietz actually got the idea for the play during a game of "dueling typewriters" played one night with a fellow Minneapolis playwright named David Erickson. Erickson sat at one side of the kitchen table trying to invent a character "based entirely on Law and Order." Dietz sat at the other side trying to invent one "based on Free Will. Instinct. Zen in overdrive." This character became a woman named Luke, the primary character in Foolin' Around With Infinity.

The play looks like it was created as a lark, without much thought given to its meaning. Instead, Dietz seems to have invested heavily in the eccentric form of the play, hoping that would distract people from the absence of content.

Form can be a valid substitute for content, or rather, an outrageous form can be the content. I just read about an artist in Washington, D.C., for example, who placed a rat in a container with a canvas floor. Above the rat he hung a 1,000-pound canvas-covered block. At a predetermined time, he planned to drop the block suddenly on the rat, and the ensuing blotches on the pieces of canvas would become abstract paintings. Obviously, the blotches were not the goal of this endeavor. Rather, the artist wanted to rile people with the outrageous form of his project. And he succeeded. Animal-rights activists went berserk when he announced his plan, and the ensuing debate about the fate of the rat was actually quite amusing.

It's fine if the form of a play is outrageous, if there's some point to the plan, some method to the madness. The form of Foolin' Around With Infinity is neither witty nor provocative. It's just impenetrable, self-indulgent, and relentlessly dull.

The play begins with an actress (Kathleen Dunn) scurrying to her seat just before the lights go down, pretending to be a member of the audience. She settles in and starts reading out loud the playwright's note in the program. When she gets to the part about the "keepers of the keys"--the soldiers who sit in U.S. missile silos, prepared to launch nuclear warheads--two of them appear onstage.

Jesse (Kent Modglin) and Mac (Frank Melcori), understandably bored by their jobs, pass the time playing Monopoly. Luke (Nan Leslie Kelley) is Mac's daughter and lives in the basement of his house. (His wife, who he says was the original "community chest," left him long ago.)

Neckties are symbols for Luke. The word, she says, is an acronym for "Nuclear Emergency Crisis Kit to Insure Eternity." She keeps several in an oatmeal container and likes to go up to men and ask them what their neckties mean. If they answer "It's just a necktie," she pities them and gives them a dollar. Most of Luke's dialogue consists of rambling non sequiturs, such as, "A woman in Denver just discovered that if you look at your husband the wrong way, you will stop loving him." Occasionally she begs her father to tell her the story of Plumbob, which turns out to be the code name for a nuclear test in the Nevada desert in 1957. The story includes a lyrical riff about a soldier who volunteered to remain in a trench 500 yards from the blast, exposing himself to a destructive dose of radiation.

The two men in the silo, located a quarter of a mile underground, receive Twilight Zone visits from a salesman, a hippie, and other characters--all played by Bill Lynn, who appears by walking right through the wall. A bear carrying a Soviet flag makes a brief appearance. And of course the two soldiers receive the inevitable order to launch their missile. By that time, however, even the prospect of Armageddon isn't enough to add excitement to this play.

Granted, the play suffers from bad luck. As the first production in Blind Parrot's new space at 1121 N. Ashland, Foolin' Around With Infinity looks like it got a slapdash production. Terry Walcutt not only directed the action on the stage, but helped build the stage in between rehearsals--which may explain why the set is so rickety. All the actors seem tentative and underrehearsed. And let's face it--how compelling is a play about nuclear war in the age of perestroika? But the biggest problem is Dietz, who seems to feel no obligation to make sense.

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