Two Men, Two Plays

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I have gotten several concerned emails from my avid readers regarding the lack of theater-related entries recently.  No fear, I’m in town for the next couple of weeks and trying very hard to catch-up with Chicago’s blazing, swinging winter theater scene.  Last weekend I caught two recent openings – Neil LaBute’s recent Broadway foray reasons to be pretty in its Chicago premiere at Profiles Theatre, directed by Steppenwolf ensemble member Rick Snyder, and Irish playwright Enda Walsh’s The New Electric Ballroom, which received raves when it ran at New York’s St. Ann’s Warehouse in 2009, another Chicago premiere at A Red Orchid Theatre, directed by Robin Witt.  I think the plays present an interesting study of contrasts – both written by male playwrights, the two of them are as different as night and day.  reasons to be pretty is definitely what you see is what you get, but raises the disturbing question of whether you really want to get what you’re getting, while Electric Ballroom is packed full of symbols and subtexts that, ultimately, you’re quite disoriented as to what it is you’re actually getting.

Several times during the performance of reasons to be pretty, I wondered to myself, why exactly am I watching this play?  And it’s not because of Snyder’s energetic, quicksilver direction, or of the bravura performances of the four-person cast (although I have always been ambivalent about Darrell W. Cox’s performances, I found him to be gut-wrenching and empathetic in this production), but because, with everything that is going on in the world right this moment, from Egypt to Arizona, why would I care about the world that LaBute creates for this play, in which conflict arises because a guy calls his girlfriend’s face “regular”? Is this truly a conflict worth writing about? 

Oh, and before I get attacked by LaBute’s buddies or LaBute himself (yes, there was that whole rigmarole on the Timeout Chicago website last year where LaBute himself or someone posing as him unleashed an online stink bomb of epic proportions railing against criticism of his framing device for Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Taming of the Shrew), I understand what this play is about.  It tries to make salient points about our 21st century American culture’s preoccupation with physical appearance.  It portrays the insecurities, deceptions, and cowardly moments that at times subtly permeate contemporary heterosexual relationships.  It says people are not as shallow and as uncomplicated as they seem to be (I like how Cox’s character, Greg, takes a different classic American novel to work with him to read during his breaks).  Got all that, check.  But I’ve seen all of that before, as well.  Despite some really riveting scene-writing (for example, the first scene when Greg’s girlfriend Steph, played with impressive brio and welcome shading by Darcy Nalepa, confronts him about what he said; or their confrontation in front of a, gulp, Panda Express in a suburban mall food court, when she goes through everything wrong with his physical appearance, both comic and heartbreaking as written and performed), I really struggled as to why I should care about this play.  I come to the theater to be educated, enlightened, provoked, challenged, and I really didn’t get any of these in reasons to be pretty. And then there’s the infuriating fact that the women’s appearances (the funny, edgy Somer Benson plays Steph’s best friend) form the crux of the pseudo-conflict of the story, and are the ones constantly commented on, instead of the men’s…I mean, I’m not going to be buying these guys any drinks at Sidetrack, let’s face it (and it’s not a criticism of the stellar performances of Cox and Christian Stolte, who plays Greg’s best friend).  It’s typical LaBute, from In the Company of Men to the heinous Fat Pig:   men who aren’t really all that acting as if they’re the gods gift to women.

Enda Walsh doesn’t write literally, obviously, or unsubtly (although I missed Druid’s performance of his The Walworth Farce at Chicago Shakespeare last year, I loved his screenplay for the haunting Hunger, one of the best films I’ve seen in the past couple of years).  Most of the time in The New Electric Ballroom, another brave choice for the consistently rule-breaking A Red Orchid Theatre, I don’t think anyone really knows what’s going on.  Three sisters live together in a remote coastal village in Ireland:  the two older sisters, Breda and Clara, don’t leave the house, the youngest sister, Ada, works in a dead-end job in a fish canning office, and all three regularly enact bizarre, somewhat grotesque rituals and stories from the two older sisters’ youth involving costumes, a fishbowl, a coffee cake, and clown makeup, including a fateful night of sexual awakening at the town dance hall with a visiting American singer.  Their rituals are also regularly interrupted by a fishmonger, Patsy, who delivers fish to the house (how can three women eat that much fish?) and who seems to have feelings for Ada.  She seems unable to reciprocate them, either because of fear of her sisters, dysfunctional co-dependency, a sense of familial obligation, or possibly a combination of all three. 

It’s a really tough play for the regular theatergoer to follow (is it about the power of familial rituals to bind as some reviews of the play have suggested, or is it, in my view, about that uncomfortable, normally unexpressed sibling schadenfreude and how we deal with it, expressed or un  – that we take pleasure in seeing our brothers’ or sisters’ pain and disappointments because we don’t want them to be better, happier, more successful, more loved than us?  Who knows?).  But if you want to see a master class in theater acting, you will be in for an immensely satisfying time.  The quartet of performances in Electric Ballroom is spectacular to say the least.  And Witt’s assured, atmospheric direction allows these fantastic actors to triumphantly shine.  Every shuffle, every bowed head and bent knee, every gesture and vocal inflection is perfectly constructed to communicate the characters’ inner lives.  Broadway veteran Kate Buddeke plays Breda as a tough, mean-spirited, still-sexually voracious sixtysomething who is probably the one with the most contained rage at her and her sisters’ lives, and who has the darkest, most untamable side.  She is magnificent.  Laurie Larson as the plain, child-like Clara is poignant and touching, her innate warmth extinguished to embers by their circumstances. Buddeke’s and Larson’s monologues about their night at the dance are some of the most riveting theater I’ve seen in the past couple of months. Artistic Director Kirsten Fitzgerald is excellent as an Ada who is fighting for survival and identity, desperate to forge a life away from her sisters but also inextricably bound to them.  Guy van Swearingen as Patsy is funny and melancholy at the same time (and impressively performs a cabaret number), a simple man drawn to the complicated loneliness of the three sisters.  I wasn’t sure what Walsh ultimately was trying to say, but this ensemble made me care about the world he was trying to say it in.

reasons to be pretty is at Profiles Theatre, 4147 N. Broadway Ave, until March 13.  The New Electric Ballroom is onstage at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells St., until March 6.

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