Ravenswood | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Stage Left Theatre

Ravenswood is the sort of play that's wishfully described as zany, wacky, madcap, irreverent. Trivial and incoherent, I think, are adjectives more to the point. Ravenswood is the name of an asylum, run by Dr. Jason Pepper, where bad habits such as alcohol, tobacco, and coffee consumption are gleefully encouraged. This asylum specializes in marriage counseling. The couples under care include a pair of career-conscious actors, a couple obsessed with killing each other in eccentric ways, and a gay male couple of New England blue bloods. Dr. Pepper himself is confined to an electric wheelchair, having been paralyzed by his former wife. And, as if that isn't zany enough, there's also a German servant in jackboots, named Otto, who's always eager to provide anyone, of either sex, with a "rubdown."

Playwright Terrence McNally, who won an Obie for this bit of satirical fluff, later went on to write The Rink, a Broadway star vehicle for Liza Minnelli. Enough said. But in Ravenswood it seems that McNally set out to lampoon psychiatry, marriage, anal retention, Germans, homosexuality, and nothing in particular. He has done so, without depth or brilliance, by relying on one-liners and superficial character traits for his laughs.

What laughs I counted -- there were three -- were mostly anal-retentive gags. Harry Scupp (played by Craig Spidle) is so fastidious that he combs the hair on his legs after applying suntan lotion. Later, he represses an urge to slide a coaster under his wife's drink, but he can't help replacing the glass just so, exactly where she had left it. Well, that's it. I laughed one more time, but I don't know if it counts, because it was a mistake. Dr. Pepper tried to negotiate a difficult spin around the set on his wheelchair, bumping into furniture and hooking and dragging a lawn chair in his wake. At that point I repressed my own desire that Dr. Pepper keep plowing scenery until utter destruction was achieved.

The acting generally consists of half-baked caricatures: actors wearing half-formed expressions, desperately fingering each and every prop on stage as if somehow, perhaps through sympathetic magic, they could glean an iota of realism by clinging to a three-dimensional object. No such luck. The least effective, most annoying performance is given by Marti Hale (as Otto), and is nothing you haven't seen a thousand times on Hogan's Heroes reruns. The best acting is by Paul Thompson, yet he does little more than create a baseline, believable character, however uninteresting.

What direction there is, by Richard Ladd, is traffic direction. Everyone gets on and off the stage at the appropriate times. Beyond that, there's no comic timing, precious few sight gags, no vocal work, no character development, no ensemble, no firmly grasped satire. It appears as if Ravenswood was simply shoved onstage with the amount of care and professionalism usually associated with low-rent apartment building superintendents.

The most concise critique of Ravenswood is a line from the play itself, delivered by April Pitt, one of the career-conscious actors. While trying to establish her reputation, she asks the other characters if they'd seen her in Random Thoughts and Vaguer Notions. Yes, I think I saw that one.

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