Talking Heads | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Steppenwolf Theatre Company

We've all seen them, the kind of people Alan Bennett writes about in Talking Heads. The fussy bachelor devoted to taking care of his mother; the nosy old biddy peering through the barely parted curtains of her living room; the preacher's wife whose perpetual politeness carries an edge of . . . something that you can't quite put your finger on. We've all seen them; most of us have made fun of them, or laughed as stand-up comedians and TV writers exploited their oddities for reliable laughs or instant pathos.

Bennett's a TV writer himself--but not the kind to settle for cheap sneers or easy sentimentality, which is probably why he's not very well known in America. In his collection of monologues Talking Heads, written for BBC television in the late 80s, the now-60-year-old Englishman sketches six small-town eccentrics. They speak not about their own feelings, but about other people--the folks who share or intrude upon their world. Behind the tales they tell lurk secret stories--their own. Talking Heads' separate segments are given their shape--and these are beautifully structured one-act plays, not just confessional monologues--by the unspoken dramas played out behind the characters' words.

Take "Bed Among the Lentils," known to some here from the Masterpiece Theatre broadcast several years ago of the BBC production starring Maggie Smith. The speaker, Susan, is the bored wife of an Anglican minister in a small north-country town of the sort in which Bennett grew up. Sardonically she describes her husband's "fan club"--pious old ladies whose lives are built around church activities and who dote on what Susan calls her husband's "underneath the cassock I'm just an ordinary man" act. As Susan shares her scathingly funny observations about the people who know her as "Mrs. Vicar," she drops unconscious hints about the real crisis that drives the story: her alcoholism. Casual comments about quick trips to the local pub and spilling milk on her dinner guests pave the way for a tart anecdote about a showdown with some parishioners over their floral arrangements for the altar, during which, Susan mentions, she somehow slipped and fell down the steps--drunk, of course, though Susan never says so. It's a wildly funny sequence--but also a chilling one, if the actress playing it makes its subtext clear.

That's unfortunately not the case in Steppenwolf Theatre's U.S. premiere production, staged by John Mahoney in his main-stage directorial debut. Marked by little of the subtle suggestiveness of many of Mahoney's own fine performances, and robbed of emotional intimacy by busy staging and a set consisting of oversize hanging windows that dwarf the actors, this is a disappointingly superficial introduction to a richly layered script. Martha Lavey's rendition of Susan's monologue exemplifies the problem: recounting her fall from grace, Lavey spends so much energy imitating the people Susan is talking about that she distracts the audience from Susan's secret story. Employing an attitude of chic cynicism and a tony upper-class accent that's all wrong for her West Yorkshire character, Lavey delivers her dialogue amusingly but with almost no hint of the inner battle Susan is trying to conceal (from herself as much as anyone); so her eventual enrollment in Alcoholics Anonymous (at the urging of a Pakistani lover, though her husband gets the credit for rehabilitating her) carries none of its intended weight as the inevitable resolution of an escalating spiritual war.

A similar problem undermines "A Chip in the Sugar," in which a middle-aged bachelor named Graham tells of his elderly, widowed, absent-minded mother's fling with a long-lost boyfriend--a two-timing cad, it turns out to Graham's relief, for the affair threatened to disrupt mother and son's cozy cohabitation. The segment's subtext concerns Graham's struggle with his own homosexuality, whose guilty repression is the reason for his devotion to mum: by dedicating himself to her he avoids confronting himself. But there's barely a glimmer of Graham's emotional battle in Alan Wilder's accurately accented but uninteresting portrayal, which closes the show on a note of inconclusive pointlessness.

The evening's best-played portion is the first, "Lady of Letters." Estelle Parsons, in one of her meatiest roles since Miss Margarida's Way, plays Irene, an aging spinster who writes letters--lots of them--to government bureaucrats, police officials, newspapers, and Queen Elizabeth herself, kvetching about matters ranging from the Archbishop of Canterbury's hair length and dog dirt outside Buckingham Palace to a neighbor couple she suspects of child neglect. "The one thing death always entails is a mass of correspondence," she says as she fires off a letter about boorish cigarette smokers at a crematorium--an apt comment, for Irene herself is emotionally dead, holed up in her little house with only a pen (a memento of her late mother) for friendship.

Parsons's performance isn't perfect--for one thing, her inconsistent accent is a frequent irritation. But she comes closer than anyone else in Talking Heads to fulfilling the script's potential for pinpoint portraiture, revealing the subjects' inner conflicts while delighting viewers with an edgy surface wit. Parsons effectively portrays Irene's struggle for emotional equilibrium in a changing world she feels isolated from--until the clever twist ending, in which the lonely fussbudget finds a purpose in a way she never expected. If Mahoney had saved Parsons's playlet for the evening's end, Talking Heads' two and a half hours might have been worth sitting through.

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

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