Naked Chicago

Sexual Perversity in Chicago

Pillsbury House Theatre

Espresso: A Story of
Caffeine and Romance

Theatre on the Verge

           "HOW'D YOU GET in?" So asks Danny in the infamous opening of David Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago, while lecher-at-large Bernie describes his aberrant exploits of the night before: His date is prone on the bed in a burning hotel room, flack suit unbuttoned at the crotch (how he got in), Bernie shouting "boom," every five minutes to pique her arousal. "Nobody does it normally anymore," Danny laments. Bernie next recounts how he dropped a "sawbuck" bedside, and fled down the smoky hallways as the firemen streamed in. Here, the smoldering war between the sexes has burst into an open conflagration; love, as Pat Benatar would have it, really is a battlefield.

           Thus, with a percussive boom and a chauvinist yarn, Mamet began his playwrighting career in 1975; this is an appropriate first scene for the poet laureate of the double-Y chromosome. Yet such a cocktail of pith and testosterone is not typical fare for the Pillsbury House Theatre, which, under the artistic direction of Ralph Remington, has recently forwarded an aesthetic of crude vigor and the amplification of the obvious. (In the rape-crisis drama Extremities, Remington underscored the action with an effects record of military hardware.) And so Mamet is presented here by way of apology, as a part of a season devoted to "adult plays...[that] deal with gender alienation and gender warfare under a white male patriarchal and phallocentric society of domination." This is going to be a barrel of laughs.

           Twenty years ago, Mamet's explosive dialogue must have seemed the very future of comedy; it's lost little of its potency, though his plotting and insights have become dulled through repetition and imitation. While chronicling the doomed relationship between Danny and Deborah, as well as the angry antics of their tag-team partners Bernie and Joan, the play emerges as an explicit male/female confessional. "Have you ever done it in a plane?" Danny asks one boring afternoon in the office, as Bernie skims an issue of Barely Legal. "Under water? In the movies? You ever made it with an Oriental?" Mamet is keenly attuned to the inner rhythms of such horny absurdity; "She has legs all the way up to her ass!" Bernie fatuously says of one beach beauty.

           And Chicago's women? They are half-misrepresented, half-mute. Joan is a "man-hater" (if a justifiable one) who indoctrinates her young students in the ideology of ill will. Deborah has the less enviable task of tearfully asking Danny to share his feelings. To this extent, it is difficult to decide whether actors Noel Raymond and Alison Kending (Joan and Deborah, respectively) are tentative by directorial design, or unconvincing as a result of authorial neglect. (Regrettably, none of the actors attempts Mamet's famed Chi-cawgo accent--thyat byaffling insertion of a "y" before "a," to create a unique Windy City dipthong)

           As Bernie, Edwin Strout fights the impulse to infuse a layer of self-consciousness into the role (instead, he succumbs to Saturday Night Live-style buffoonery). Strout drinks shots with his elbow perpendicular to his body and talks to women by making eye contact with their nipples. In him, female sexuality arouses that classic pairing of fear and loathing; whatever the program notes claim about phallocentric domination, Bernie does not dominate women's sexuality as much as he is controlled by his obsession with it. Ultimately, he and his reluctant disciple Danny represent a cartoon image of the cliche, "thinking with the wrong head." (I once saw just such a vulgar figure in a bathroom stall, a face with dick swapped for nose, drawn in the act of sneezing.) That one recognizes characters (and illustrations?) like these today is a testament to the durability of this playwright's vision.

           While Mamet's script was shoddily adapted to screen under the title About Last Night, local writer Karen Frank has penned a long sitcom called Espresso: A Story of Caffeine & Romance, and passed it off as a play. She cannot be blamed for having Friends; she wrote this slight comedy about young love and too much leisure time back in 1993. So chalk it up to the collective unconscious: Karen Frank and the National Broadcasting Corporation. That the flyweight script, filled with predictable plotting and skinny characters, smells like TV is not an artistic crime; King Television is as entertaining as live theater two nights out of three (and is infinitely more seductive). Watching the actors mug for invisible reaction shots, on the other hand, is a strange thing. And lines like "save me from the angst of the postmodern condition!" don't belong in any medium, with the possible exception of the Warner Brothers network. Theatre on the Verge, now in their second season, have done an admirable job dressing up the Cedar Riverside People's Center stage, a notoriously charmless venue. Ultimately, though, this amiable twenty-nothing soap opera is on the verge of not being theater at all. CP

           Sexual Perversity in Chicago runs through August 24 at Pillsbury House Theatre; 825-0459. Espresso: A story of Caffeine and Romance runs through August 24 at Cedar Riverside People's Center: 924-0566.

 
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