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AMERICA'S OTHER METROPOLIS

Theatre of Dave

at the Playwrights' Center

The Theatre of Dave, as its name implies, doesn't take itself very seriously. Its casual approach, from the rather glib program to the chatty lobby staff--including a guy handing out chocolates who I assumed was the playwright himself--may be delightful to some and annoying to others. But fundamentally the group's nonchalance tells the audience not to expect too much from Stephen Spoonamore's America's Other Metropolis. It's an appropriate way to produce this young and seemingly unfinished script.

Spoonamore does show promise. According to a program note, he's been producing work in his "eclectic trout infested barn/theatre space" in Vermont for four years. And his idiosyncratic language, fragmented and halting and at the same time curiously musical in its fractured rhythms, could easily be the product of such an isolated location. At his best, Spoonamore is a highly personal writer, creating several momentarily captured images that remain unresolved and therefore resonant. At his weakest, he's too entrenched in particular moments, causing the play to lose focus and momentum.

The first third of Spoonamore's script is quite strong. The piece begins with a magical piece of writing, delivered by Dan Kurllingan (K. Scott Coopwood), a former New York junk-bond dealer who has relocated to Chicago and found work in the financial district. Lit by a single white spot, Dan begins his monologue with an awkward "I . . . uh . . . hm." Clearly he has something important and perhaps troubling to say, but he doesn't know where or how to begin. This delightfully funny and sad moment reveals that Spoonamore is brave enough to begin his play where plays rarely do: with a mistake.

Dan quickly recovers and begins to introduce himself to us, although clearly the entire affair makes him quite uncomfortable. He seems somewhat weary, as if his ability to speak might disappear at any moment. He has left New York because there, he explains, "one loses the ability to toot one's own horn." This simple line crystallizes Dan's character: his New York existence has robbed him of his self-esteem. Coopwood plays this moment perfectly--by showing us Dan's effort to make the observation sound casual and even somewhat glib, Coopwood makes the pain behind the statement all the more apparent.

Charmingly--and a bit pathetically--Dan tries to befriend the audience, even shaking the hand of a man in the front row and introducing himself. This moment of contact sets up the play's fundamental tension. As Dan explains, every time you touch someone, a little bit of that person literally rubs off on you, so that "no matter how carefully you wash your hands, you consume a bit of those you meet." To befriend someone is to risk being eaten alive.

This idea is played out during the rest of the work with some success. Dan leaves and Tracy McNichol (Laura Stitt) enters, poring over the personal ads in the Reader. Tracy has even more difficulty speaking than Dan does. "I'm a graphic designer," she says. "I . . . design graphics." She seems high-strung, frantic and breathy at times as she contemplates the possibility of actually responding to one of the ads--she's the type of energetic, unsettled person who's exhausting to be around.

Of course the ad Tracy responds to is Dan's. The two of them meet at a seedy diner and attempt to befriend one another--an excruciating process for both of them since neither seems able to say the right thing. For example, after Tracy finds out what Dan's New York job was, she casually responds, "That whole Wall Street junk-bond raping-America thing, you weren't . . . " before realizing her monumental blunder. They're not so much eating each other alive as eating themselves alive here.

It's at this point--once the two meet--that the play begins to lose steam: the two characters are so monumentally uncomfortable that it's nearly impossible for the scene to progress. And except for a final coda and a few escapades conducted by Dan's and Tracy's alter egos, Main Man Dan and Traveler Tracy, this scene is the last half of the play. It's hard to believe that these two successful professionals would be so devoid of social graces. When the characters are alone, such discomfort works well, as if we in the audience were privy to highly personal moments. But I wanted to see how their behavior would change once they were in each other's company, perhaps trying to avoid the very weaknesses they'd admitted to when alone. Spoonamore misses an opportunity to let us get a fuller sense of his characters.

Susan Pope's direction also makes the scene ring false. In the successful opening monologue, Dan attempts to cover up his vulnerability--as of course he would in facing an audience of strangers. Here the characters seem to play their discomfort openly. They don't even try to hide their nervousness and appear at their best; they telegraph their awkwardness to each other, sometimes at nearly cartoon levels. If their intention in meeting each other is to make a good impression, Pope has them acting contrary to that objective.

Otherwise, Pope's staging is quite strong, clear and uncomplicated. She uses the tiny space well, and gives it an ironic sense of expanse by placing miniature Chicago buildings (designed by Michele Gregory) here and there around the stage. Intelligently, Pope doesn't try to doll up this new script, doesn't attempt to add flash to cover up structural weaknesses. Instead she allows the play to sink or swim on its own merits. This production should be a useful one for Spoonamore to hone his craft.

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