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In Performance: letters from Dumpsville

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The heater clanks, struggling against the draft. Your toes are numb but the window's open, lest a weekend's worth of cigarette smoke and BO kill the cat. The late-January cold threatened, at first, to put you over the edge all by itself. Then you thought, heck, why not use the time to sweep up, go through the clutter, sort out the mementos? That's when you came across the old breakup letters and you realized that--oh shit--it's almost Valentine's Day, the most horrible holiday of them all.

If it makes you feel better, you're not the only one who's spent the winter brooding over kiss-offs past. Last year Sabrina Lloyd and Molly Neylan, founders of GroundUp Theatre, noticed that as summer faded their romances--and those of their friends--semed to be ending in showers of "complicated" letters from departing flames. Sharing their stories and keeping a sense of humor seemed to help them cope. It also forced them to notice some painful patterns, but, says Lloyd, "with some distance, those things became really funny to us, so we thought, 'Hey, this should be a show!'" The result is Letters/X, a cabaret-style revue based on real-life Dear John letters and staged where the brokenhearted gravitate: in a bar.

To create the 45-minute piece, Lloyd and Neylan asked their friends to dig up painfully amusing epistles from the past--the more distant the better, to avoid embarrassing anbody. They got something like 80 submissions. "We have letters from prison, last-minute wedding cancellations, one-night-stand breakups, long-distance disses, and harassment suit threats," says Lloyd. Some were the original letters, others photocopies or e-mails, or initially courageous drafts left unsent. After they removed any identifying information Neylan and Lloyd handed the pile over to Anthony Roberts, managing director of American Theater Company and an actor as well, who thinned the bounty, wove his choices into a script, and wrote three strangely jaunty songs to accompany the bitterly funny material.

Roberts says his favorite submission was the one written from prison. "It's full of hilarious contradictions and abrupt changes in tone," he says, then quotes, in part: "Hey, I know you said you want to keep it as friends....If we can't be together, meaning you being my wife, then, oh, well, I guess it's going to have to be as lovers. Anyways, baby, I need stamps, shampoo, soap, paper, and etc." But the straight fuck-yous could be crowd-pleasers too. "I hate to join the ranks of women who've dated you who seriously don't like you and think that you're mentally unbalanced," reads one, "but oh well!"

Some of the letters are suspiciously polished. "Boxer shorts in my drawer," runs one stream-of-consciousness piece of which Roberts is particularly fond. "Every time I open it I think of you standing before me, opened, exposed, no lies between us. Think of how those drawers got in mine." Was the prose gussied up for submission to the show, or was it tweaked for dramatic impact during the heat of the breakup? Lloyd and Neylan don't know, but they don't really care. "We've all poured our hearts out to people who want nothing to do with us," says Lloyd, "and it leaves you with the question: is this really an attempt at refostering love, or is it all about the writer and their ego?"

Directed by Lloyd and performed by a cast of seven, including Neylan and Roberts, Letters/X runs Wednesdays and Saturdays through February at the Hungry Brain, 2318 W. Belmont, 773-935-2118. On Monday, February 9 and 16, it'll also be performed at Goodbar, 2512 N. Halsted, 773-296-9700. All shows start at 8 PM. There's no cover charge, but you must be 21 or over to attend.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson.

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