Of All the Wide Torsos in All the Wild Glen; The Panhandlers | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Of All the Wide Torsos in All the Wild Glen; The Panhandlers


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Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company

As topics for a pair of ironically contrasting black comedies about life in the 1980s, liposuction and homelessness do just fine. Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company's current bill of one-acts, Of All the Wide Torsos in All the Wild Glen and The Panhandlers, approaches this decade of extreme excess and extreme deprivation with an attitude of bleak humor, juxtaposing a manic encounter in a high-priced cosmetic surgeon's clinic with a surreal slice of life among street people.

Paul Peditto's Of All the Wide Torsos begins with morosely poetic, quasi-religious meanderings on a taped voice-over as the play's protagonist reluctantly enters the inner sanctum of a liposuction specialist, like a penitent sinner visiting the local church-approved torturer. Our hero is Maxwell Gibbs, an overweight and overwrought playwright whose succession of flops has driven him to feeding fits. As he sits in the doctor's waiting room, listening to the hideous sucking sounds emanating from the operating room as one might have listened to groans from the rack in the days of the Inquisition, Gibbs launches into a waspish and self-pitying tirade against critics, audiences, and the "quack" psychiatrist who has referred him for liposuction (a better body being the doorway to psychic health, the reasoning goes). Outfitted with a rasping Dixie drawl and a collection of jerky, flap-wristed hand gestures, Gibbs appears to us as a southern-gothic gay in the Tennessee Williams mold; but that's apparently a matter of imperfect acting and direction, as Peditto's script draws Gibbs into a psychosexual standoff with the doctor's young, efficient, relentlessly vigorous female nurse. She tries to coax Gibbs out of his recalcitrance by flaunting her fit form in a quickie workout session (to the rhythms of a dance-rock tape by the Fat Boys, for that extra edge of humiliation). Peditto builds the friction between Nurse Hastings's energy and Gibbs's anxiety to a farcical crescendo that involves a noisy pratfall and a furious chase around a desk before sending the paunchy playwright off to meet his remaker.

The angst of the well-to-do is inevitably less dramatically intense than the plight of the poor; Tom Hamilton's The Panhandlers, the second half of this double bill, is conceived in a darker comic vein, which takes its characters to the edge of a shocking grisly murder. Things begin amusingly with a lesson in panhandling etiquette, taught by the streetwise "professor" to his dumb and luckless "apprentice." The professor's guidance (for which he charges 50 percent of his student's take) recalls Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera, in which J.J. Peachum instructs an army of raggedy beggars in the dos and don'ts of persuading passersby to part with their money. Brecht's Peachum was given to biblical quotations; Hamilton's professor, as befits contemporary eclecticism, laces his lectures with high-flown references to Gandhi and Nietzsche (prompting strains of Philip Glass and Richard Strauss on the sound track).

Brecht's ironic vision of capitalism as seen by a beggar king is brought up to date when the professor negotiates a leveraged buyout of his "business"--whose only assets are the homeless street folk who are bound to him. When the apprentice rebels, the professor and his female accomplice reveal a sharklike ruthlessness that might have given even Brecht's slimy Peachum pause.

Both Peditto's and Hamilton's scripts strike home with cunning points and canny images. But both could stand to be pared somewhat. Peditto's self-indulgent voice-overs, a device he has used effectively in past plays, seem gimmicky and intrusive here.

Mary-Arrchie's production is clearly of the low-low-budget variety; that doesn't have to impede creativity or venturesomeness, but it seems to here. James Venturini's staging of the Peditto script is student-level stuff, sluggish and imprecise. The actors--Gary Anello, as Gibbs, and Susan Alexander, as Nurse Hastings, bear the brunt of the play, though there are brief walk-ons by Ted Goodman and Kerry Reid--settle for caricature when more believable characterizations would have better highlighted the playwright's satiric bent.

Anello also shows up in Craig Bradshaw's aimless staging of The Panhandlers, playing the apprentice, a very different character with the same annoying hand gestures; this isn't a style, it's a bad habit, and I can't believe it went unchecked by two directors. As the professor, Danne Taylor cuts a rakish figure in his beatup overcoat and his long ponytail; but his effete attitude only scratches the surface of his initially appealing, ultimately appalling character. Kerry Reid is far too bland as the streetwalker whose passiveness gives way to a sudden burst of coldhearted aggressiveness. In a bare-bones production such as this, clarity of intent in the acting and the blocking is essential; these two plays seem to have been thrown together in the directors' spare time.

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