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Super Naturalism


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Roadworks Productions

at Victory Gardens Theater

By Justin Hayford

Clumps of actors slouching about, scratching their ears and "acting natural," are about as common on Chicago stages as gobs of spit on subway platforms. But sometimes spit can fascinate, refracting light intriguingly, bubbling unexpectedly, offering up mysterious bits of matter you simply wouldn't encounter anywhere else. Bad naturalistic actors, on the other hand, are typically about as beguiling as a glass of distilled water.

Naturalism usually fails because actors and directors don't put in the effort to make it work. It's deadly difficult to craft a compelling evening-long arc out of a series of seemingly unstaged events, usually people sitting around talking. But too many artists approach naturalism not as a style to be mastered but as a default mode when they don't know what else to do, disguising their ignorance of style in the first place (which is why "Chicago-style" Shakespeare is usually neither). Such artists tend to think that re-creating onstage their first postcollege apartment--the unmade bed, the clutter of cigarette butts and liquor bottles, the roommates on a fast track to nowhere--is enough, forgetting there was a good reason nobody ever paid admission to watch them waste an evening at home.

But in skilled hands, such as those of the remarkable Roadworks ensemble, naturalism can elevate the most mundane moments to pure sublimity. As in their inspired production of Eric Bogosian's SubUrbia last year, watching a bunch of twentysomething losers kill time for two hours in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven can be a thrill, even if the play offers balding retreads of well-worn Gen X cliches. SubUrbia's cast, led by the effortlessly dazzling Patrick McNulty, weren't just gobs of spit--they were half-dollar phlegm gobbers.

And they're back, once again under Abby Epstein's meticulous direction, in filmmaker Mike Leigh's down-and-out-in-working-class-London antiplay Ecstasy. Some of the personnel have changed--for the first time since I can remember, McNulty isn't tearing the stuffing out of a Roadworks show--but the commitment, the intelligence, and the breathtaking precision are the same.

It may take a while to realize that you're watching an exceptional piece of theater, however. The first act creeps at a funereal pace through three long, nearly event-free scenes. For much of the act, the emotionally paralyzed Jean and her boorish slob of a sex partner Roy have nothing to do but drink, smoke, and not talk to each other. The play begins with the couple naked and immobile in bed, Jean curled at the head and Roy planted at the foot. He sniffs. He sniffs again. And again. They get dressed, drink, and sit around. He sniffs a few more times, then leaves. She sits alone until, after a long pause, the lights dim. You start wondering where else you might have spent your $18.

Epstein strives to suck all the life off the stage in order to create Leigh's sinkhole of working-class dolor. It's a gutsy choice to which she and her cast wholeheartedly commit, reviving the same deathly torpor in an even more sluggishly paced scene between Jean and Roy that concludes the first act. (The performances are impressive: Derek Hasenstab's guttural, swaggering Roy is a perfect foil for Rachel Singer's traumatically numbed Jean.)

After ten minutes of the first act, the debilitating weariness of Jean's life is palpably real, and Leigh's world fully articulated (although it's compromised somewhat during the act's second scene, in which Jean's friend Dawn stops by for a chirpy, overanimated visit). Certainly the utter exhaustion of the first 45 minutes sets up a necessary contrast to the act's explosive final minutes, when Roy's enraged wife arrives and the two attack each other; with so much featureless emptiness preceding it, this scene is especially shocking, incongruous, and absurd. Still, Epstein could have accomplished everything the first act requires in one-third the time, getting her play more readily on track, even giving herself the option of eliminating the current roadblock of an intermission.

From the moment the second act starts, however, we see why Roadworks deserves its reputation as one of the hottest young companies in town. Though the first act struggles to find an animating spark, in the second Lance Baker brings on a flaming torch as Jean's skittish, wounded, terminally insecure friend Len, a man so uncomfortable in his own body he seems to have rented someone else's for the evening. His wife left him a year ago, and he aches for the intimacy he might find with Jean. Yet his social ineptitude leaves him floundering for ways to charm her; hoping to compliment her apartment, he offers, "It's small but it's...compact."

Leigh's second act sets up every pitfall for bad naturalistic acting; amid the clutter of cigarette butts and empty liquor bottles, four friends--Jean, Len, Dawn, and her husband Mick--sit and talk. As in his films, Leigh has little interest in advancing a plot; he's content to let his characters simply interact. They relive past glories (most of which revolve around drinking to oblivion), idolize dead pop stars, bemoan Britain's unemployment, sing old songs, and drink nonstop, calling out "Cheers, anyway" whenever conversation lags. Tellingly, they never talk about anything that might happen in the future.

Epstein skillfully guides her cast around the traps. Unlike most actors attempting a scene like this--the second act is one continuous stretch of seemingly artless conversation, originally scripted from actor improvisation--this cast pays great attention to rhythm, timing, color, texture. They also create deeply felt relationships; Dawn and Mick express their robust love solely through unbridled shouting matches, while Jean and Len articulate their desperate need for each other by avoiding the other's gaze at all costs. Through the most ordinary gestures the actors create a universe of tenderness, brutality, compassion, and despair.

By rights, this should be the most boring play in town. And at least one critic has complained that the show doesn't have a point (I wonder how that critic feels about Hamlet). But the sophistication and economy of the performances transform a seemingly aimless evening into an epic saga of stagnation. The four sink deeper and deeper into the ruts they mistake for their lives, but in the end they get through, which in Leigh's world is nearly an act of heroism. Their struggle is charming, inspiring, and heartbreaking all at once.

And occasionally it's painfully boring. Even the masterful second act contains several interminable uninteresting stretches. Yet that boredom is a legitimate part of these characters' lives; it's true to the experience Leigh and Roadworks want to capture. Though it may frustrate audiences intent on being entertained at every moment, the play would be a lie without it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/ Phil Kohlmetz.

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