Triple Play/Ayn Rand Gives Me a Boner 

TRIPLE PLAY

Powertap Productions

at Stage Left Theatre

AYN RAND GIVES ME A BONER

Metraform

at the Annoyance Theatre

Chicago is not a particularly hospitable place for struggling local playwrights. They have a devil of a time getting their work produced at all, for unlike local actors, who for the most part compete only with local actors for roles, they compete with every playwright in the world whose work is available in English.

So it's sad that even a theater company like Powertap Productions, which is "dedicated to producing new works by Chicago authors," finds it necessary to hedge its bets by adding a short play by Harold Pinter to its evening of one-acts by local playwright Stan Nevin. It was what Nevin himself jokingly referred to on opening night as a "shameless ruse" to lure audiences in. But Nevin's wry, gentle one-acts, which have much more in common with Neil Simon's plays than Harold Pinter's, are just the sort of well-crafted, good-natured works that should be able to attract a mainstream audience.

Nevin's Fishing for Men is a comic allegory that compares the various strategies women employ to attract men (perfume, lingerie, pretending to like sports) with the art of fishing. Catherine (Ann Marie Ready) teaches her younger sister Jennifer (Meaghan McCarville) the art of catching a man by baiting her hook with such lures as skimpy negligees and copies of Sports Illustrated doused in perfume. Along the way Jennifer learns which men she should throw back (the poor ones), which ones she should try to land (the rich ones), and which ones to avoid altogether (smarmy womanizers).

Such a plot summary hardly does justice to the artful way Nevin allows his story to unfold or to Nevin's gift for establishing a character with just a line or two of dialogue. But it does point to the most troubling aspect of Nevin's work: it's impossible to tell what he thinks of his characters and their situation. Is Fishing for Men intended as satire of the status quo? Or merely as funny description of mating rituals we may be ambivalent about but would never dare rebel against or try to change? As it is, this play can be taken either way.

This is less true of Nevin's second play on the bill, Smile, about an annoyingly aggressive, obsessive gambler named Darryl (ably played by Michael McKune), whose life falls apart immediately after betting he can keep smiling for an hour no matter what happens. It's a tighter work than Fishing for Men--which unfolded, appropriately enough, with the lazy ease of a day spent on a lake--and it moves from beat to beat with the quickness of a game of five-card stud.

Based on the comic principle that few things are as funny as watching an asshole get his just desserts, Smile is a much less ambiguous work than Fishing for Men. We know who to root for and against pretty much from the play's first minute, when Darryl and Darryl's equally competitive friend Scot pick on the one instantly likable character in the play, the nebbish Richard.

Watching this one-act clip along, winning laughs at every turn, it's hard not to admire the considerable craft that went into it--there's not a wasted line or false beat. Had Pinter's The Collection not been on the bill, I would have left the theater happy.

Unfortunately, someone at Powertap Productions thought that angry old Harold Pinter was just the thing to round out the evening. He isn't. The Collection is too terse and vicious to pair with Nevin's lighthearted fare. Pinter's stripping away the veneer of middle-class civility to reveal the violence bubbling beneath contradicts the more benign (and bourgeois) message of Nevin's plays; be nice, play fair, don't screw your fiancee's best friend. In Pinter's story about a pair of stiflingly middle-class couples--one straight, one gay--it quickly becomes clear that no one is nice, no one plays fair, and that one must avoid not infidelity but being caught.

Nevin and Pinter also disagree on a deeper level. Nevin's comedy works from the assumption that things are pretty much what they seem, and those things that aren't can be explained before the end of the play: Pinter's work is built on the premise that if you think you know what's going on, you're wrong. Which means that when Pinter and Nevin are put side by side, either Pinter will make Nevin seem superficial, or Nevin will make Pinter seem humorless. Because Nevin is first on the bill, his more optimistic point of view dominates; The Collection comes off not as a mysterious bit of Pinteresque tragicomedy, but as a failed comedy--despite some wonderful acting from Robert Bundy (as the husband who discovers his wife has cheated on him) and Daniel Blinkoff (as the man who did the cheating).

A more appropriate companion piece for Pinter's The Collection might have been Metraform's dry and subtle black comedy Ayn Rand Gives Me a Boner. Directed by actor and architect Gary Ruderman, this play presents two stories: one about Roger (superbly played by Jim Carrane), a man who moves from one awful job to another with amazing frequency, the other about Walter, who exploits the fact that he's supposed to die in six months.

The more developed story follows Walter's transformation from a whiner into a bullying monster who sees nothing wrong with demanding that family, friends, and even total strangers do everything he asks. The less-developed story, or rather the series of scenes that don't quite add up to a story, reveals Roger in one or another of his humiliating jobs--which range from being an usher in a movie theater to working at a hot-dog stand to waiting tables at a kitsch, Disneyesque restaurant (with items on the menu like "Lady and the Scampi" and "That Darned Catfish").

This 75-minute piece suffers from momentary bouts of wandering-story-line disease (a symptom of having been developed through improvisation). However such lapses hardly matter, as the play's plot line exists only to provide a framework within which Gary Ruderman and his cast can mock movie-of-the-week sentimentality about terminal diseases ("Dying. Huge mistake. Banner size") while cracking their dark, witty jokes about the world in general and the tight job market in particular. "I've got an interview at the chicken place," Roger says at one point. "It's my second interview." The result is a comedy far more cynical and pessimistic than the usual Metraform fare--but also more intellectually satisfying.

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