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Trouble Fitting In

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Three for One: Monologues for the New Millennium; or Just Get Over It

Live Bait Theater, through September 12

By Justin Hayford

Edward Thomas-Herrera's new monologue, Cocktail Confidential, is an apt introduction to "Three for One," Live Bait's evening of solo pieces dedicated to outsiders muscling their way into various social circles. In the past Thomas-Herrera has seen himself--or at least his jet-setting, world-weary, lavender socialite persona, Edwardo--as the center of the social universe, with various fashion designers, big-game hunters, ski instructors, and literary giants orbiting him like gold-plated moons. But in Cocktail Confidential he casts himself out of his own imagined inner sanctum--real money changes everything--and spends the evening trying to worm his way back in, even as every natural impulse tells him to flee.

"Three for One" begins promptly at eight. But just before Thomas-Herrera enters, he announces from backstage that it's 9:08 PM--he's even put a clock upstage, its hands frozen at that precise moment, as if to ensure our appreciation of his fashionable tardiness. As we quickly discover, however, his lateness marks him not as a sophisticate but as a parvenu. The conceit is that he's attending a soiree at Mrs. Dorothea Byford-Shipman's, where he's spent a full 19 minutes holed up in her "elegant art deco fantasy bathroom," paralyzed by the sight of a sparkling bidet, imported Swedish hand creams, and the sound of jeweled sandals padding impatiently outside the door. Swept up into a debilitatingly moneyed cocktail party after a few chance remarks on the sidewalk outside ("Charm can be such a curse," he laments), he lands with a thud in this tiny room, mortified and seduced.

The Edwardo who tried to pass himself off as Mrs. Astor in Tango Edwardo and Mondo Edwardo now finds himself face-to-face with real money and realizes, to his relief and shame, that he doesn't belong in the penthouse. The partygoers who surround him are the kind that Dorothy Parker fondly eviscerated. Amid a cheerless parade of mummified women in lacquered bouffants, a middle-aged doctor plies a chesty blond with free-flowing Tom Collinses. The Polish princess from Nebraska simply must know whether Tiffany's or Harry Winston sells the better diamonds. The recent divorcee, just emerged from her herb-and-yuba-leaf body wrap, wonders if anyone would like to feel her skin. The Swedish personal trainer, "a Hitler Youth wet dream," offers a friendly hand and quickly exhausts his five-sentence repertoire.

Although Thomas-Herrera seemed jostled on opening night, flubbing plenty of lines, his meticulously detailed snapshots of a fossilized world are extraordinary. Moving the hands of his clock every now and then, he takes us from one stultifying moment to the next, as though time itself might calcify without a shove from him. But Edwardo can't condemn the way Parker did, because he's not really part of this world. No matter how vapid or pretentious the encounter, the haute couture atmosphere gives his thrift-store ego a welcome boost. And something in him holds out the possibility of finding innocence in this jaded assemblage, of nourishing his soul at the trough of opulence. At the same time, the party brings out Edwardo's most uncharitable impulses: he continually lords it over the intellectually inferior, if only in his mind, as he oozes from pose to pose. The party is to Edwardo what a candy bar is to a diabetic.

Had Thomas-Herrera ended at this point--about midnight by his clock--he would have created a merely amusing piece. But instead he pushes Edwardo to a place he's never been, a place of genuine vulnerability. First Edwardo breaches all social etiquette and whips up a frenzied conga line, sending himself and the guests into paroxysms of pure foolishness. In a moment of intentionally forced prose he exclaims, "Like all moments of glory, it only lasted one glorious moment." But the scene breaks the performance wide open, allowing Edwardo to drop his well-polished guard as he wanders into an out-of-the-way room where a few stragglers drape themselves over furniture or across the floor, talking about nothing and everything. In this sacred moment all pretense drops, all social playing fields are leveled, and genuine intimacy develops between people who share nothing except a few cubic feet of space. For the first time Edwardo imagines romance not with a daredevil pilot or Canadian Mountie but with an unassuming middle-aged man as unremarkable as a wing chair.

The moment produces a sea change in Edwardo, who returns home to find everything in his apartment suspended in quotation marks. "There is 'the view' from 'the window,'" he says, adroitly capturing the estrangement from the ordinary that can happen after glimpsing another world--and another self. Capturing one of the most profound moments in life just as it begins to unfold, Thomas-Herrera immediately brings the piece to a close--a daring but satisfying choice, ending with untold possibilities rather than well-rehearsed conclusions.

Cheryl Trykv exploits a similar experience in her new monologue, Terribly Lucky, as her character revisits her family home and tries to find a way back into a once familiar, now absurd world. Like Thomas-Herrera, Trykv has developed a persona that's all shallowness and insincerity, maintaining a harsh veneer both dissolute and self-congratulatory in her floor-length evening gown and clunky black shoes. In fact she enters to the prerecorded sound of an enthusiastic ovation, waving and smiling to an unseen throng--all the while ready to puke at the cheapness of it all.

Trykv takes her caustic, unapologetic persona back home to the folks' trailer park and worm farm ("Worm ranch," her father insists). There her thirtysomething brother still lives with her terminally superficial parents in the shadow of the Com Ed plant; its unearthly orange glow is sacrificial in its effect, she says. The family carries on as though she didn't exist, as though her Pulitzer nomination were nothing compared to her brother's advances in worm-nutrient technology, and she can't imagine why she's come back. The meaning of family, she says, is epitomized by a baby circus elephant chained to a post. Trained to think itself weak, the elephant simply burns to death rather than set itself free when an acrobat drops a lit cigarette into a nearby bale of straw.

Trykv's piece is filled with similarly harsh poetic imagery as she prattles away in what seems to be yet another dysfunctional-family satire. The difference lies in her razor-sharp prose and tortuous emotional ambivalence: her character hates the family she's been saddled with and hates herself for hating them. Rather than attempting to unearth the roots of her family's psychoses, she presents them as something akin to a force of nature. "Mother is like an August noon," she says, "and her children are albinos."

In a masterful turn, Trykv drops this story three quarters of the way through and suddenly puts herself in a car with two dogs and someone named Nancy. It seems Trykv has left the trailer park and is riding around her Chicago neighborhood with a friend--a scene that should be an antidote to her familial disconnectedness. But instead she and Nancy launch into a mind-numbing argument as petty as any that went on back home. In a brutal confession, Trykv reveals that the rut she's in is all of her own making, that friendship offers no more hope of meaningful connection for her than family. In this bleak moment, she likens friendship to three baby monkeys who can wear each other's clothes, perform cartwheels, kiss, and fall asleep. The bitter irony of this final metaphor is heartbreaking, especially since Trykv maintains her pleasant, steely facade right up to the final blackout.

Thomas-Herrera and Trykv are at the top of their games as both writers and performers, making the inclusion of newcomer Paul Connell rather unfortunate: he's still fumbling for his voice and performance persona in This Young Summer, the story of a 15-year-old girl on vacation falling in love with a 21-year-old Yale student. For her the affair marks her entrance into sexual and--more important--social adulthood. When he invites her to his family home for dinner, she's the guest of honor for the first time in her life, making grown-up conversation, forming her own opinions, and loving every minute of her newfound personhood.

Like Thomas-Herrera and Trykv, Connell explores a simple but archetypal moment. He lacks the probing insight of his colleagues, however, producing a rather generic story about youthful infatuation. His writing tends to be abstract and repetitive; he describes the Yale student, for example, as looking like "a romantic sheik or a prince or a king." And as a performer he seems strangely uncommitted to his material, strolling through it at a leisurely pace. At the very least Connell should have been put first on the bill, not last, so as not to suffer a quick death by comparison.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still by Daniel Guidara.

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