The Lights; Saturday Morning Live | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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The Lights; Saturday Morning Live

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THE LIGHTS

Roadworks Productions

at Synergy Center

SATURDAY MORNING LIVE

at the Organic Theater Company Greenhouse, Lab Theater

Howard Korder has a gift for dialogue. He can reproduce in striking detail the aimless, fragmented way we speak--the broken syntax, the incomplete statements, the constantly interrupted thoughts--and the way we only half listen when others are talking. Consider the conversation that opens The Lights. Rose: "In the city?" Lilian: "Hmmm." Rose: "Somebody opens a door every half second." Lilian: "Huh?" Rose: "What?" Lilian: "Who's opening the door all the time?" This exchange would be hilarious if it didn't also reveal the heartbreaking lack of true communication.

Korder's plots are similarly aimless and fragmentary. Like the characters in a Don DeLillo novel or Hal Hartley movie, his drift through their lives. In a focused play like Search and Destroy, Korder gives us a single amoral character who destroys himself in search of ill-gotten gain, and the rudderless quality of the script adds an extra level of tension to the story. We literally never know moment by moment where Martin, the play's schmuck of a protagonist, will end up next.

The Lights is not focused, however. Here Korder attempts to make a grand statement about life in big, dirty, nasty New York City and follow the wanderings of two characters--a naif, Lilian, and her boyfriend Fredric. Korder quickly proves, however, that he needs much more time than a two-act play--and a rather long two-act play at that--to really tell his story.

Because Korder splits the focus between two characters, we never get to know either of them very well. It doesn't help that Lilian and Fredric are thin stuff compared to Martin in Search and Destroy. Martin epitomizes the dark side of the go-go 80s (Search and Destroy premiered in 1990)--he's tricky, heartless, opportunistic, acquisitive, and deserving of every bad thing that happens to him. But Lilian and Fredric passively float through life, allowing one bad thing after another to happen without fighting back once.

Lilian is the more active of the two. She steals a watch from work, is coaxed by her friend into spending a night on the town with a pair of older prosperous men, and is coerced into having sex. Fredric merely falls apart. At first he's just an unemployed guy down on his luck but sincerely looking for work. But his situation deteriorates rapidly--over the course of about 24 hours he's revealed to be a junkie, gets beaten up by a mobster because he owes more than he can cough up, takes a degrading and illegal job stripping an abandoned building of its fixtures, and is transformed into a raggedy homeless man.

Had Korder focused solely on Lilian, his play would probably have collapsed: as it is, many of Lilian's scenes feel too long. Korder is no more capable of creating real, compelling female characters than he was in 1988, when Boys' Life was first performed. In that play women come in two varieties: clinging girlfriends or wives and aloof temptresses.

Korder might have had better luck focusing on Fredric, but I doubt it. He doesn't seem to understand the character or the causes of his economic predicament very well. While past Korder plays have concerned college-educated, upwardly mobile characters, in Lights he explores the downwardly drifting lower middle class. And unfortunately his portrait of Fredric (and to a lesser extent Lilian) seems drawn less from direct experience than from novels, plays, and newspaper articles about layoffs and the homeless. Even his usually sparkling dialogue sounds at times recycled from a Damon Runyon novel or a Judy Holliday movie. The two most vivid characters--a corpulent businessman named Diamond (brilliantly portrayed by Daniel Ruben) and a city official named Erenhart--both come from the upper middle class.

Director Abby Epstein works hard to make the play seem more than it is. She uses every inch of space at her disposal and countless walk-ons by ensemble members to re-create the frenetic New York atmosphere of too many people going too many places.

Her cast is to an actor strong. Brenda Lasker's heroic performance as Lilian almost gives the character a third dimension. But even having a strong actor in the role can't disguise the fact that Lilian is really just an empty space at the center of the play.

Of course things could have been worse. Epstein could have been stuck with Saturday Morning Live, an empty, crass attempt to cash in on TV nostalgia that makes even the god-awful musical Gilligan's Island seem high art. This series of revue sketches based on popular Saturday morning cartoons, separated by verbatim performances of Schoolhouse Rock songs, depends for most of its laughs on the sight of actors playing cartoon characters.

I'll admit there is something momentarily amusing about seeing adult actors dressed up as Shaggy, Freddy, Daphne, Velma, and Scooby-Doo. Unfortunately, most of the humor in David Gips's sketches is based on a similar premise--they add sexual innuendo to these kid's cartoons. Even at its cleverest, this premise grows old fast: in the Scooby-Doo parody, we learn that the babe and hunk of the cartoon, Daphne and Freddy, secretly boink each other in the Mystery Machine.

To make material this thin even passably amusing requires outstanding comic acting on the level of Second City, which we definitely do not get from this amateurish, over-the-top cast. Even if the bits as written were funny, they wouldn't survive the constant mugging, cutting up, and joke telegraphing. To top it off, the strongest material in the show--the live stagings of songs, from ABC's educational cartoon commercials, Schoolhouse Rock--can't hold a candle to the marvelous, energetic, unpretentious, and thoroughly entertaining Schoolhouse Rock Live! that played elsewhere in the city. More than once I found myself wishing I were watching that show instead of suffering through this one.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jesse M. Kahn.

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