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Down the Slippery Slope 

SEARCH AND DESTROY

Strawdog Theatre Company

A COUPLE BY KORDER

Diamondback Theater

at Sheffield's School Street Cafe

Martin Mirkheim is a small-time booking agent--polka bands, wrestling matches--nearing the end of the line. His wife has left him, the IRS is after him, and his friends can no longer lend him money. Ah, but Martin has read this book--an inspirational novel, Daniel Strong, whose author, one Dr. Luther Waxling, outlines four precepts guaranteed to turn one's fortunes around if followed diligently. And so Martin, a man whose focus is so fragmented he can't even finish his sentences, pledges his last possessions--his condo, designer suit, and painfully petty cash--in order to realize his goal: making a movie that will spread the gospel of Waxling throughout the world.

One's morals aren't usually considered a possession until one's in danger of losing them, and Howard Korder is one of the best of the post-Mamet playwrights at tracing a good but naive man's ethical erosion by economic necessity. In Search and Destroy, his ingenuous protagonist from Boca Raton, Florida--a sleepy coastal village, literally "rat mouth"--embarks on a journey that will take him to all parts of the country and bring him into the company of cocaine suppliers, industrial spies, snake-oil salesmen, and other self-serving double-dealers, all of whom exploit in the name of Waxling's commandments. Eventually Martin--like his hero, Daniel Strong, and all who venture into the heart of darkness--must choose, at risk of his life and his humanity, his direction. He gets what he wants, but at a price.

Korder illustrates his parable with the kind of chewy roles actors wait years to play. For this Strawdog Theatre production, director Charles Harper has assembled a cast of seasoned, capable professionals, all of whom are obviously having a wonderful time, savoring every quirk and nuance of their unpleasant but never implausible characters. As Martin, Steve Savage (usually cast in lightweight comedy roles) projects just the right combination of open-faced innocence and animal instinct required in a character whose beliefs are rooted firmly in the sand. Assisting him down the slippery slope are Bart Petty in a chillingly accurate portrait of a nicotine-fueled corporate sociopath, Lawrence Novikoff as a megalomaniac evangelist, Richard Shavzin as a skeptical drug peddler, and Stephanie Manglaras as a screenwriter with her sights fixed squarely on the market.

What makes these tinsel characters gleam like platinum, however, is not any one performance but the universe created by the ensemble, who consistently deliver Korder's tricky rhythms and patently artificial dialogue well and with confidence (and with never a trace of irritating look-Ma-I'm-acting showiness). Search and Destroy is easily one of the best shows of the season, and one that should claim for the Strawdog company the recognition it deserves.

In the two one-acts produced by Diamondback Theater under the collective title "A Couple by Korder," the playwright also criticizes the powers that shape America today. The Middle Kingdom shows us a husband very concerned about money, and especially about the money his wife spends. As he lectures, patronizes, blusters, harangues, and whines, however--"If you don't make money in this country, you don't really exist. Money makes you real"--his wife comforts and reassures him, knowing the reason for his sudden and irrational fear. David vanWert and Robyn Parsons handle Korder's subtext competently, though vanWert tends to slur his words, and both appear far too young to be working parents with an 18-month-old child.

Gil Hutchinson, the protagonist of Lip Service, is a newscaster with a career spanning 40 years of American history--though he's spent the last 10 doing the morning news for a television station in a small town. All this seems about to change, however, on the day his new partner arrives--Lisa Burdette, a chirpy, photogenic, egotistical, buzzword-spouting Sally-Oprah-Kathie-Leeza clone bubbling over with phony empathy and genuine ambition.

Karin McKie (herself a veteran of public TV) attacks her role voraciously, making Lisa into a smiley-faced monster as sweet and hollow as an empty eclair. (At one point we see Lisa in a video sequence--no one but Lisa--responding to an unidentified interviewee in ways so generic it could be anyone from Princess Diana to the building janitor.) Lawrence Garner radiates a quiet dignity as Gil, the survivor whose strength and sense of irony give him the last laugh.

Though Lip Service calls for 18 scene changes, they're accomplished in a mere 45 minutes, and the entire program runs barely over an hour. It's still impossible, because of scheduling, to see both this and Search and Destroy in the same evening--which might after all be for the best. How many assaults on one's ethics can one take before succumbing, as Korder's characters do?

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Music
San Fermin, So Percussion Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park
June 01
Galleries & Museums
Keren Cytter Museum of Contemporary Art
March 28

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