Second Chances

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Despite the fact that on these pages I sometimes sound like a hipper, sultrier Bette Davis crossed with a litter of hungry cats and the ladies of The View on a good day, I’m a pretty generous guy.  I like to think of a glass as half-full, I coo at infants (of course from a distance to avoid getting baby spit on my fab cashmere sweater), and I like to give multiple second chances to theater companies, where earlier viewing experiences might not have been as pleasant or as enjoyable.  So I have gone back to the Lookingglass Theatre, which has, over the years, failed to impress me (with my disappointment even greater because of the very visible boatloads of money they spend on their productions in that beautiful downtown space that should have been spent on better shows), and the locale for one of the most heinous nights at the theater I have ever spent in my life (The Wooden Breeks almost made me want to be a Cubs fan instead of a theater aficionado, that’s how awful it was).  I’ve also gone back to Remy Bumppo, which I’ve decided not to drop any money on after a disastrous, geriatric-appealing The Philadelphia Story a couple of years back.  And, of course, if you regularly read this blog, I have a pretty complicated relationship with the Goodman.  I respect its important role in Chicago’s cultural conversation and legacy, so I keep on going back, hoping to find, once again, an unforgettable Ruined or King Lear amidst drifting dreck like Turn of the Century and Ghostwritten.  Over the past couple of weeks, Lookingglass surprisingly impressed with the engrossing world premiere of Trust, Remy Bumppo validated with the unsexy Les Liaisons Dangereuses (yes, dear readers, I didn’t even think that was possible, but more on that later!) and the Goodman…well, the Goodman, with the head-scratching, narcolepsy-inducing world premiere of Rebecca Gilman’s The True History of the Johnstown Flood, probably provided one of the worst nights at the theater I’ve had since…The Wooden Breeks.

Lookingglass ensemble member David Schwimmer and Andy Bellin turned their screenplay for the upcoming film Trust, about the effect on an affluent Chicago suburban family of the fourteen year old daughter’s encounter with a pedophile trolling internet chat rooms, into a play.  So Trust feels very cinematic, with short, constantly-switching, tightly-written scenes.  Schwimmer also directed the play and his use of background video created by Bridges Media to evoke the settings, from a stylish Wilmette family home to a Loop office to a sleazy motel, meticulously designed by Dan Ostling, instead of actual stage sets is quite impressive.  Schwimmer’s even-handed, confident direction also plays a big role in making the story quite compelling and engaging, despite a level of insight that is more appropriate to an episode of Law and Order: SVU.  We have seen these characters before:  the angry father whose immersion in his rage and guilt makes him do crazy things like steal police evidence or pose as a thirteen year old girl in a chat room with older men; the chillingly normal-acting middle-aged pedophile with kids of his own; the understanding psychologist who nevertheless can’t fully comprehend a parent’s anguish because she’s single.  Despite the well-trodden script, one still cares for the characters and I think it’s primarily because of the exceptional acting.  Everyone is pretty good, but ensemble member Philip R Smith is riveting as the hurting, raging father, who is also quite sympathetic in spite of his irrational responses to the crime (and though Clive Owen is playing the role in the film, I’ll take Smith’s hunky daddy anytime.  Woof!)

The Glenn Close-John Malkovich classic Dangerous Liaisons, based on Christopher Hampton’s delicious, ribald, smoldering play Les Liaisons Dangereuses about 17th century French aristocrats playing games of sexual upmanship and manipulation, is one of my favorite films of all time.  The leads characters of Valmont and Mme. De Merteuil are so hypnotic (and played to perfection by Malkovich and Close respectively), so pungently drawn, so unapologetically conniving, with an overflowing buffet of catty zingers and seductive double entendres, that I always assumed the play is a guaranteed fun, breezy, sexy time at the theater.  Well, unfortunately, Remy Bumppo’s new production, stodgily directed by Artistic Associate and well-regarded actor David Darlow, is surprisingly none of these.  The blocking is static, the transitions (which have actors moving a chaise lounge around in different places onstage with no visible rationale) are too lengthy and numerous, and most of the performances, unforgivably, have no bite or sizzle. 

In my opinion, Nick Sandy’s Valmont never comes off believably as an irresistible, slightly menacing rake, but more like you’re affable buddy next door (who just happens to wear embroidered waistcoats and white tights).  Valmont is a seducer, a love-em-or-leave-em SOB, not a drinking buddy at a Wrigleyville bar.  Rebecca Spence’s Mme. De Merteuil doesn’t fare any better.  I’ve always thought of Mme. De Merteuil as the 17th century combination of Gloria Steinem, Sharon Stone’s Basic Instinct character, and a Real Housewife of Orange County with better breeding; it’s a character that makes the audience heady with her palpable power, self-confidence, sexual explosiveness, and dangerous mettle.  Unfortunately Spence’s Mme. De Merteuil, although physically looking the part, comes off as someone really nice and talented playing dress-up.  And without riveting lead performances, Les Liaisons Dangereuses just falls apart.  This production also has one of my pet peeves, which I also notice a lot at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater – I don’t really care whether the actors all have period-appropriate elocution or not, but the director should have them speak consistently, in one manner.  Unfortunately, in this production, some actors speak like Eileen Atkins-Judi Dench in Cranford while others sound like Lincoln Park Trixies at the Half-Shell.

I’m sure many people at the Goodman read Rebecca Gilman’s new play The True History of the Johnstown Flood and liked it enough to give it a world premiere production in the Albert Theater main stage subscription season, with direction by Artistic Director Robert Falls.  That’s quite the big time, royal treatment.  But I’m very confused, because I wonder if they read something different from what I saw performed – a meandering, uninteresting, simplistically written play.  First of all, I’m not sure why the story of the perceived causes and aftermath of the Johnstown flood, one of the biggest disasters in the history of the nation, is told from the perspective of an itinerant theater company who just happened to be performing in Johnstown when the flood struck.  Wouldn’t it have been more powerful to tell the story of a Johnstown resident who is deeply invested in the survival of a community he/she has roots in?   If this is about the perceived cause of the Johnstown flood, the self-indulgence of its rich citizens to build an unstable dam to have them exclusively fish in, which subsequently collapses in the middle of a really bad thunderstorm, then why muddle the more interesting sociological discussion by bringing in the tensions between an arts organization’s socio-cultural responsibilities and the run to need it as a commercially viable enterprise?  This is about the Johnstown community, right?  Also, why are there interminable portions of plays-within-the-play that gives us a flavor of eighteenth century performance history but not really anything about Johnstown as a community?  Why is there an underdeveloped romance between the theater company’s lead actress, Fanny, and the scion of one of Johnstown’s rich families, Walter?  What does this have to do with the flood?  Whose “True History” is this about, really?  Why did Gilman think this was a story a paying audience would be interested in seeing?  And yes, as a paying audience member, I was infuriated that the Goodman, once again, put on a play that didn’t make any sense and which wasted so much talent (the set designer Walt Spangler whose visionary, detailed sets are enthralling; the sound designer Richard Woodbury whose marvelously realistic and multi-dimensional sound effects are clearly the best elements of this production, the brilliant actors Cliff Chamberlain, Janet Ulrich Brooks, and Stephen Louis Grush, who struggled mightily to create well-thought out performances in the middle of writing that wasn’t well thought-out).   I think I’m taking a break from trekking to the corner of Dearborn and Lake for the rest of the season – I can easily spend my arts dollar elsewhere in this city.

Stop by 821 N. Michigan Ave., where Trust is playing until April 25, if you want a night of engaging theater.  Les Liaisons Danegreuses is running at the Greenhouse Theatre, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., until May 2, while The True History of the Johnstown Flood is at the Goodman’s Albert Theater, 170 N. Dearborn St., only until April 18.  Go to Lincoln Ave. or Dearborn St. at your own peril!

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2 Responses to “Second Chances”

  1. Sydney Says:

    I was with you at The Wooden Breeks – and may have been the person who suggested it. My abject apologies. It was indeed one of the worst shows I’ve ever seen. Didn’t someone behind us fall asleep and snore? Quite an evening.

  2. francis Says:

    Hi Sydney! Yes, the person did fall asleep and snore (after being so belligerent to the ushers about a missing program insert prior to the show’s start, by the way), so I demonstrated my peerless theater policing skills that night! :)

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