Suffering Fools/Still Life With Stein | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Suffering Fools/Still Life With Stein


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Excelsior Productions

at the Synergy Center


at the International Performance Studio

Back when movies cost a quarter and you didn't have to auction off your firstborn to see a Broadway show, you could go to a theater and dream about what it would be like to be rich and carefree and frivolous. You could go to the Strand and watch Cary Grant or William Powell sashay through Park Avenue apartments in top hats and tails. You could go to the Studebaker and watch drawing-room comedies in which women in fancy evening gowns cleverly berated men in smoking jackets, tossing back glass after glass of champagne.

There was a certain charm to high society back then. Hollywood and Broadway were dream worlds of debonair men and elegant ladies, places where the chorus girl always became a star, the hero always got the girl, and the end was always happily ever after. In that tinseled world, you could forget about the Depression-era poverty all around you.

Today, much of the glitter is gone. Tabloid articles about drug abuse and alcoholism in Hollywood have dulled its sheen, and the lights of Broadway are dimmer than they've been in years. Of course you can still see the old films and fantasize about reclining in a champagne bubble bath after a quick dance with Ginger.

Such fantasies may have been the motivation behind Excelsior Productions' first effort, Suffering Fools, advertised as a Noel Coward play for the 90s. Perhaps the playwrights--Maureen Kidder, Geoff Potter, and James Zrimsek--felt that the depressed 90s might be the time to resurrect the charm and class of high-society comedies of the 30s and 40s. But it's not exactly a given that America is ready to shake off its 1991 doldrums with a new drawing-room farce.

Suffering Fools brings us all the conventions of this well-worn genre. There's a wisecracking butler, a nosy gossip columnist, a fallen starlet, and a bevy of stylish men and women in evening gowns and tuxedos. The action takes place around midnight in New York's Plaza Hotel, where Cordelia Wildwood is gulping down martinis awaiting the reviews of her latest show, a guaranteed flop. All heck breaks loose when her ex-husband, successful playwright and author of The Talk of the Town Alex Ratcliffe, pops in to rub Cordelia's nose in his success.

There are slammed doors, hurled items of food, witty wisecracks, broken engagements, and reconciliations. There's a millionaire Irishman who has made it big on, you guessed it, the potato business. He is also, you guessed it, a big drinker of Jack Daniels. Though Suffering Fools claims only Noel Coward as an influence, it recalls at least a hundred other plays, films, and radio shows from the 30s and 40s.

The playwrights attempt to bring the comedy into the present day with jokes about the Clydesdale horses in Budweiser commercials and references to Tatertots and Fruit of the Loom underwear, but for the most part this comedy remains fully entrenched in the rather dated genre it emulates.

Director Bradley Mott has elicited a few good performances and a few grating ones from his actors. Marc Silvia as William the butler does a great comic turn--his excellent timing confers laughs on lines that are not always that funny to begin with. Jay Johnston as the self-obsessed playwright Alex is an appealing leading man despite a tendency to gesticulate too much, incessantly pointing his index finger. And despite the fact that Kelly Carter as a masseur/surfer has no lines, he steals quite a few scenes with his bemused smirks and California "hang loose" gestures. At the other end of the spectrum is playwright Kidder, who portrays the actress Cordelia: she delivers a great many of her lines at ear-shattering decibel levels, making several moments of the show difficult to endure.

The production looks good. The evening dresses and hairstyles look very haute couture; the Gingiss tuxedos don't even look rented. And Mott has arranged his well-coiffed cast into many pretty pictures--much of this production looks as if it's come out of the pages of Esquire or Vanity Fair. But the play itself remains a puzzle.

The writers and director probably spent a good deal of time watching old Cukor and Lubitsch films and reading plays by Philip Barry and Noel Coward. But though Suffering Fools is true to the genre, it offers absolutely nothing new. All the elements in this play have been seen before and have been done better. Perhaps the characters might have seemed charming in a grainy black-and-white movie. But today they bear absolutely no resemblance to any living human. And the play's situations are hackneyed and obvious. For these writers the reference points were not real life but old plays and films; they've created a play that was outdated before it was written.

The International Performance Studio at Facets is now hosting Laura Sheppard's performance piece Still Life With Stein. Using elements from Gertrude Stein's book Tender Buttons, Sheppard creates a multicharacter comedy of manners with a minimum of props and set pieces. We begin by meeting a woman dining at table, and then are introduced to a wide array of characters and situations.

An unusually verbose program note informs us that Sheppard's is a cubist work inspired by Picasso, Stein, and Braque, displaying different perspectives on formal dining and etiquette. Her piece, we are told, is related to "tableaux vivants," "gestural theater," and "living art."

Sheppard is energetic and enthusiastic as she embodies a variety of characters, attempts a few foreign languages, launches into a number of dances, and shows off her skills at pantomime. But though her performance offers some evocative images and a few humorous moments, she does not exhibit particular accomplishment in any of the fields in which she dabbles.

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