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Torn on the Fourth of July

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LIPS TOGETHER, TEETH APART

Halsted Theatre Centre

It's fitting that Terrence McNally set his very funny new play during a Fourth of July weekend and filled it with all-American types. After all, what could be more American than paranoia, prejudice, envy, and lust?

McNally puts two New Jersey couples in a Fire Island summer house and lets them get as ridiculous as they can in order to investigate what makes us human. Sally has inherited the comfortable cottage from her brother, who died of AIDS. As she and her meat-and-potatoes husband Sam, his ditsy sister Chloe, and Chloe's conceited husband John, lounge about on the sun deck next to the swimming pool, everything seems revoltingly pleasant. Sally paints a seascape, John tackles a crossword puzzle, Sam explores the house, and Chloe fusses in the kitchen. But their activities are only acceptable ways to avoid each other.

One of the first confessions comes from John, who blurts out that he has cancer. What would seem to be a hackneyed "lightning bolt" turns intriguing when we see that only the audience has heard the news. McNally's use of spoken internal monologue creates an intriguing conflict with the interaction between the characters. John's hidden feelings of weakness and fear, for instance, surface as a rivalry with Sam that builds to a ridiculous display of schoolyard bravado.

But McNally isn't pumping out a confessional drama with unsympathetic yuppies. Instead he's having great fun with people you love to hate, and then sneaking in a story of people struggling just to be themselves. When it's revealed that John and Sally have had a brief affair, John's sense of mortality is again a prime motivator. He mistakenly believes the tryst will prove his virility and somehow make him invincible. Yet Sally tells John she was attracted to him because of a brief glimpse she caught of his hidden, vulnerable self. John claims she was mistaken: "I like the distance between people. To know me is not necessarily to like me."

The issue of Sally's dead brother forms the subtext of the show. The four characters repeatedly refer to the beautiful pool that sits at the front of the stage, but they all invent excuses for not swimming. A drunken Sally is the first to admit the shared fear of AIDS that keeps them from going in. Their common ignorance and fear only underscores how little they understand each other.

Faults that at first seem funny become serious when we see that these people are trying to be decent but can't control the mess they've made of their lives. Chloe, hilariously played by Joan Schwenk, seems like a gabby airhead until she finally stands up to the group's patronizing attitude. They've been cruel, but she insists she isn't mad at anyone: "I think we're all pathetic."

Schwenk doesn't stand alone. Indeed, the play wouldn't fly without the help of a superior cast and fine comic director. Peggy Goss zeros in on Sally's struggle with honesty. At first she puts on a great show as the grieving sister, but later admits she was always sickened by her brother's life-style. Such an admission would be loathsome if not for her anguish and guilt about having such feelings. Si Osborne and Larry Russo find the three-dimensional people in the sometimes piggish John and Sam by exploring what makes them so scared. Judy O'Malley's on-target comic direction and the natural flow of her staging subtly amplify the emotional impact of the script. Despite a couple of awkward moments--in one aside Sam's prejudice against homosexuals is instantly altered when he spies two men making love--the balance of realism and theatrical device are handled nicely. Kevin Snow's realistic set, with its shower and swimming pool, and Patrick Trettenero's attention to detail in his property design give the house an air of its melancholy history, fortifying the punch of this American tale.

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

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