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The Santa Anas and All Judy's Men Leave

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Chicago TheatreWorks, at the Organic Theater Company Greenhouse, South Hall.

Some playwrights seem to have difficulty remembering that they're writing for the live stage, not for the television studio. John L. Wood's two new full-length plays, both being produced by Chicago TheatreWorks, are full of the manufactured improbabilities and facile plot devices that network producers slobber over. In The Santa Anas a downtrodden class-conscious Latino kid gets caught burglarizing the sumptuous home of a Zen-spouting, suicidal Hollywood hack. In All Judy's Men Leave a frenetic English professor who believes that he's Judy Garland and his live-in "immersion therapist" end up in virtual lockdown with a self-loathing, fundamentalist AWOL gay sailor with incontrovertible proof that the world is about to end.

Like so many contemporary American playwrights hoping to distinguish their scripts from mid-season replacements, Wood tries hard to make his unlikely stories "serious," working in a handful of confessional monologues in which characters lambaste class disparities in Los Angeles or the homophobia of fundamentalism. But in neither play does Wood create a moment of real drama because he never lets his characters interact in more than superficial, melodramatic ways. The only change possible for them is a descent into psychosis, robbing them of moral agency, or physical injury, a literal collapse: the thief in The Santa Anas spends 75 percent of the play writhing in agony with a broken rib, turning actor Dale Rivera's otherwise promising debut into 90 minutes of grunting and groaning. Despite the boundless enthusiasm of both casts, the characters rarely seem to have lives of their own: they're specimens under glass, like just about any sitcom family you'd care to mention.

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