Is Chicago | Theatre Seven at Rogue Theater Company
When Through 4/14: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 2 PM
Where Rogue Theater Company, 5123 N. Clark
If David Mamet had retained the original ending of his 1974 play Sexual Perversity in Chicago, Theatre Seven's current pair of one-acts--presented under the banner "Is Chicago"--would provide complementary images of estranged lovers caught in the glare of late-night television. As described by Richard Christiansen in his history of Chicago theater, A Theater of Our Own, Stuart Gordon's inaugural Organic Theater staging ended with exes Deborah and Danny, torn apart by their insecurities and the sniping of cynical friends, each watching a television set from opposite sides of the stage. "The Star-Spangled Banner" signals the end of the broadcast day, and as the television reverts to white noise, Deborah rises and turns the set off, leaving, as Christiansen puts it, "silence, darkness, nothing."
But Mamet changed the ending after the first production to feature Danny and his loutish chum, Bernie, sitting on the beach, sizing up and harassing the women who pass by. In Marisa Wegrzyn's new play Diversey Harbor, set in the same north-side neighborhoods explored by Mamet more than 30 years ago, the ex-lovers end up falling asleep together in front of the television after a night filled with troubling encounters. Maybe it says something about the evolution of dating since the toxic Lincoln Park singles-bar scene anatomized by Mamet that Wegrzyn's contemporary characters reach out to each other for comfort, even if they're no longer involved sexually. Or maybe Wegrzyn, a Theatre Seven ensemble member and a rising local playwright (her The Butcher of Baraboo was featured in Steppenwolf's "First Look" new works festival last summer), simply doesn't have Mamet's polished but pitiless sensibility.
Wegrzyn's play is structured as a series of five monologues for four characters whose lives are upended by the mugging of a fifth unseen character. It's reminiscent of Conor McPherson's early monologue-driven play, This Lime Tree Bower, and of Howie the Rookie, by McPherson's fellow Irish playwright, Mark O'Rowe. All three works are anchored by criminal acts, but Wegrzyn gives no stage time to thugs. Her characters are essentially decent but drifting postcollegiates, and though there are references to MySpace and cell phones (along with loads of shout-outs to Chicago locales), they don't feel particularly belabored or self-conscious.
It's interesting that a writer from a generation frequently excoriated for its short attention span can craft a play so lovingly attuned to long-form storytelling, whereas Mamet's piece relies on short blackout scenes and the trademark staccato rhythms that would soon be imitated by lesser writers and parodied by Second City (whose sketch-show formula helped provide the inspiration for Sexual Perversity in the first place). Brian Golden's simple, sure-handed staging and the endearing vulnerability of his young cast weave a haunting spell as the pieces of Wegrzyn's puzzle fall together.
There's literally a shaggy-dog element to the tale. It begins with the story of a stoned dog walker, James (Charlie Olson), who interrupts the mugging of a young woman at the lakeside one cold winter evening and loses his canine charge in the process. James takes the woman out for coffee, and though he'll never see her again, what happens that night will haunt him. Meanwhile, the lost dog provides the catalyst for Dennis (Brian Stojak) to make overtures to an older married woman. Grace (Robin Kacyn), the depressed roommate of the mugged woman, also finds her life turned around in unexpected ways in the aftermath of the crime. And Stephanie (Tracey Kaplan), James's ex--who bartends at a downtown bowling alley that sounds suspiciously like 10pin--has an encounter that same evening with a man who may be a ghost from the Eastland disaster.
Wegrzyn has a deeply compassionate streak that contrasts with Mamet's flinty view of urban romance. The four actors in Diversey Harbor also play the quartet of singles in Sexual Perversity, but in the Mamet piece they feel a bit like kids playing dress-up in their parents' discarded disco duds. And the foul language and sexually frank discussions that once made Mamet's piece seem explosive now seem merely quaint. Nevertheless, Golden stages it with brisk wit, and a few lines hit home, as when Deborah tells Danny, in the middle of a heated fight, "You're trying to understand women and I'm confusing you with information," or when Bernie, hurt by what he perceives as Danny's abandonment of their friendship in favor of his affair with Deborah, dismissively refers to Danny within earshot as "a guy in the office." But the play has been tackled so many times over the years that it takes something special--like a double bill pairing it with a compelling new play--to warrant another trip to see it.
The modest but impressive Diversey Harbor quietly unfolds each of its characters' fears of abandonment and loss. By the time James and Stephanie, drained by the night's disturbing events, pass out together in front of the TV, it doesn't feel like a commentary on the hopelessness of love in the face of meat-market sexual freedom and gender antagonism. It resonates as a small moment of respite and tenderness in a city capable of much casual cruelty.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Sexual Perversity in Chicago photo/Johnny Knight.