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LIKE LIFE

Cellar Door Players

at Royal George Theatre Center's Gallery

Not exactly a major discovery, Cellar Door Players' "Like Life" is nonetheless a diverting little find: two good, short comic plays (both by Chicago writers), whose differences emphasize their connection while keeping the evening as fresh and funny as it is brief (an hour and 40 minutes, including intermission).

The common element in Terry Breen's The Extraordinary Mr. Ordinary and Tom Wawzenek's Grandma's Funeral is a man trying to make order, if not sense, out of life, and in the process making life hellish for everyone else. Breen's Mr. Ordinary and Wawzenek's Frankie Biezychudek are average Joes trying to keep their worlds functioning. Mr. Ordinary does so by staying home; he's literally an armchair philosopher who sits and dictates his thoughts into a tape recorder. A dropout from the corporate rat race, he's a good friend to Stu Simply, the yuppie efficiency expert who drops in on him now and then, and a faithful lover to Brenda, the bargain-store checkout girl he meets while shopping for toilet paper. Good and faithful, that is, on his own flaky, self-absorbed terms; though he means no harm, he's apt to leave Stu trapped in his bathroom while he courts Brenda, or to forget about Brenda while he and Stu literally go Nowhere--and find it a tourist trap. But when he comes back, he's willing, even eager, to show Brenda the slides he took. Whatta guy!

Mr. Ordinary--a sort of laid-back, late-1980s version of Robert Crumb's flipped-out Mr. Natural from the 1960s--is based on a cartoon character Breen used to draw for the Cleveland Plain Press; and The Extraordinary Mr. Ordinary is certainly structured like a series of comic strips, for better and for worse. Anthony W. Sommer's staging of Breen's script runs in fits and starts, without the steady flow needed to make the play play like a play. The production values, too, suggest uncertainty as to whether to celebrate or jettison the script's roots; the silly sound effects provided by Breen himself are pure cartoon, but the costumes and set have a shopworn, naturalistic feel. The actors similarly seem stuck between comic-strip exaggeration and earthbound realism. These are problems to be resolved if Breen and Sommer want to develop this hip, flip extended sketch into a full-length play, as they suggest they do.

Grandma's Funeral, on the other hand, knows exactly what it wants to do. It's a reader's theater piece, with four people sitting on chairs telling their versions of what happened at Grandma's funeral. Each puts his or her own spin on the story; and each version, besides being an innately captivating mix of humor and horror, reveals something about the person who lived it.

Frankie Biezychudek is the de facto head of a Polish family. In his early 40s, he's the eldest of three children. Their alcoholic father is dead, and even when he was alive, Frankie pretty much had to take charge of things. For him, the proper burial of a loved one is one of the few events a person can control. So when sister Judy wants to be a pallbearer, he's outraged--that's a job for men. When kid brother Joey wants to drive his own car to the funeral, he's incensed--the family should stick together on this somber occasion. When mother Anna wants Frankie to keep driving even though another driver has hit his car, he's infuriated--then confused by the lack of support his family shows him when he attacks the other driver in the middle of the street. And when everyone--the family, the friends, even the priest--want to cancel the grave-side ceremony because the Chicago wind is blowing fiercely, he'll have none of it. The resulting procession through a hilly cemetery during a snowstorm is a case study in macabre comedy.

The key to the success of this terrific little play is in the details--the ones described by the characters and the ones suggested by what's left unsaid. Like a Chicago ethnic Mark Twain, playwright Wawzenek knows his characters inside out, and he knows how to let us discover them gradually and inferentially.

The two ensembles in this pair of plays acquit themselves competently and entertainingly; David Bodin, an old pro long absent from the Chicago stage, is fascinating as the stubborn, self-justifying Frankie. Firmly rooted in reality, Bodin's revelation of the sources of his character's contrary behavior is both funny and moving, so that one is at once embarrassed to laugh and unable not to laugh at his hilarious story.

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