Hard Feelings | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader
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HARD FEELINGS

BDI Theater Company

at Stage Left Theatre

They were careless people, Tom and Daisy--they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness . . . and let other people clean up the mess they had made --The Great Gatsby

The English yuppies and trendies in Doug Lucie's Hard Feelings are very skilled at smashing things up--mainly themselves. But only after they've hurt others even worse. What's more, they're not alone. Like High Hopes, Owners, Knuckle, Road, and Pravda, Hard Feelings supplies more ugly proof that racial bigotry and moneyed arrogance are respectable traits in Margaret Thatcher's unmerry England.

Lucie clearly prefers his underdogs to his top dogs, and in Hard Feelings he slowly, sometimes clumsily, pits the human beings against the stylish nonentities--then savors the results, which are as repulsively fascinating as an auto accident.

The class clash is implicit in the situation: privileged young people are living in gentrified splendor amid the poverty of London's Brixton; ironically, it's just before the 1981 riots break out. The smug, selfish crew is headed by insufferable Vivienne, a poor little Oxford-educated rich girl who's a virtual Thatcher clone. Vivienne toils not, neither does she spin; but she does love to shop. The most important thing about Vivienne is that she owns the house they all live in--a fact of which she reminds her tenant-friends whenever she wants her way.

Unearned property hasn't exactly ennobled Viv; she alternates between literally and figuratively cutting people and abstractly contemplating suicide, the sole alternative she can find to her "freedom to rot." Mostly Viv contents herself with bisexual bedroom romps, including stealing her girlfriend Annie's parasitical boyfriend, Rusty.

Annie is, if anything, worse. Anti-intellectual, anti-Semitic, but very pro-alcohol, Annie has cultivated no talent worth selling--though, as we learn, she can open her legs in front of a camera. Rusty, a perfect match for Annie and, later, for Viv, is an empty-headed clotheshorse, cokehead, and all-around toady who fancies himself a rock singer. (In the play's most ironic scene, because Rusty's wearing headphones and vocalizing some punk bilge about "the shock of the new, it's heading for you," he can't hear the Brixton riot breaking out around them.) When Viv takes him from Annie, who has no pride to swallow and is in any case only in love with herself, Annie never blinks an eye.

The final worthless yup who shares Viv's nasty little home is Baz, a rock-concert producer and a sad, sexist twit; ineffectual and useless, he may mean well but he doesn't dare prove it while Viv's around.

Lucie's underdogs are Jane and Tone. Jane is Jewish, an Oxford chum of Viv's. Now a law student, she dwells in Viv's snake pit as a sort of 80s Cinderella: she busily cleans Viv's house in her rare free time because Viv loves things to be antiseptic and bitches when they're not; in general, Jane tries to rise above the stunted snobs around her. Her boyfriend is Tone, a radical journalist with tinderbox tendencies, the one character who stands up to the yups. But he's far from perfect; his activities in the Brixton riots are, to put it mildly, strange--a reporter who helps to trigger the carnage he records.

Our sympathies inevitably go to Jane, the one plausibly decent soul and the cause of the play's big conflict. This comes up when Annie gives Viv a painting that she thinks heralds the latest craze--40s chic: this collage features a prominent portrait of Hitler. Incredibly, Viv and Annie can't understand why Jane finds this more than offensive. When Jane asks Annie what Hitler did, Annie poutingly replies, "I guess he killed Jews." Viv, of course, would rather blame Jane for pretending to be the victim of an artistic insult. Rusty is no help; his reaction to a broadcast of Holocaust is, "It's a bit one-sided, don't you think?"

Jane's quarrel with Viv brings on--and none too soon--the final crisis. When it's over, Viv has achieved a mean little triumph worthy of Thatcher herself.

Lucie's abundant exposition takes too long to develop the friction necessary to produce a plot. Unlike Simon Gray in Quartermaine's Terms and The Common Pursuit, Lucie can't develop a group of characters through continuous ensemble action. Instead of finding an emotional arc to lift his tale to its crisis, he builds in dribs and drabs. The Brixton riot in particular passes too casually (but then for most of these characters it might as well never have happened).

Because of these shortcomings, it's crucial that the BDI Theater Company make this U.S. premiere zip along, downplaying or coasting through the talkier scenes and Lucie's repetitive indictments of his blatant bastards. Jim Tillett's reverent staging, however, makes the weaker first-act exposition as important as the stronger second-act conflicts. Not all of these 140 minutes are above excision. Still, except for some accents that seem to hail from Dixie (the English do not confuse "Hi" with "Ha"), this is Tillett's sole misstep. In the rest, particularly the casting, Hard Feelings shows solid stagecraft; its rotten events are as satisfyingly down and dirty as in Strawdog Theatre's Five of Us or Next Theatre's Knuckle.

Lucie's nest of vipers--Tone rightly calls it a "pressure cooker"--is zoologically perfect. As if she knew Caryl Churchill's Top Girls by heart (or lack thereof), Diane Zimmer draws out of the self-hating Vivienne all the cold and pointless possessiveness of a born bully. Likewise for Kathleen O'Grady, whose opportunistic Annie is casually cruel in a way Daisy Gatsby would have envied. Marc Grapey almost leaves a slime trail oozing around as the rancid and hypocritical Rusty, a creature who can say "We're classless now" just as he's sucking up to rich Viv. In David Van Matre's Baz, the guy's passive complicity feels as poisonous as Viv's active malevolence, especially when he pathetically professes to love but won't defend Jane. When Baz is reduced to literally mopping up in the final scene, it feels wonderfully right.

John Gaynor plays the crusading Tone with a bit too much brain; here the proletarian agitator is less palpable than the Hyde Park orator. But when Tone explodes, Gaynor makes it as loud as we could possibly want. (Gaynor also has the play's most invigorating line: he mockingly defends Viv by saying, "She's not fascist, she's just stupid.") As Jane, Francesca Rollins is no timid victim; you feel her strike back with all the accumulated fervor of the audience's best wishes.

With its pristine plants, Levolor blinds, and cold yup decor, Brian Traynor's set offers the kind of beige bleakness that two-thirds of these characters thoroughly deserve.

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