Ball of Confusion | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Ball of Confusion 

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Center Theater Ensemble

at the Theatre Building

By Adam Langer

Distressingly, the one character who inspires sympathy in Beth Henley's comedy of theatrical types gathered to mourn the passing of their friend and mentor Dash Gray is the only one who has nothing to do with the theater. Bob Gray, the simpleton brother of the deceased--played by the always splendid Marc Vann in Center Theater's world premiere--wanders about the stage empathizing with the forlorn, shying away from the spotlight, and feeling a profound sense of responsibility for even the most trivial of his actions. But the mad caravan of lunatic thespians and artistes that Henley has assembled are too self-involved and too quirky to put aside their differences even at a memorial service for a friend.

It's possible there's a critique of the contemporary American theater scene in here somewhere. Given all the politically correct dramas aimed at garnering corporate dollars, the revivals of creaky old vehicles luring the tourist trade, the television sitcoms and sitdrams, it seems the theater has become more and more about narcissism and greed and less and less about furthering the art and examining the human condition. But if this is Henley's point, she sabotages it with her menagerie of characters. Their foibles are over-the-top and their actions unlike conceivable human behavior. On the other hand, if Henley (who wrote this play for her old buddies at Center Theater and their mentor and teacher Edward Kaye-Martin) intends us to sympathize with her lovable loonies and pity their self-indulgence, she also fails. For it is woefully difficult for an audience to feel much more than casual interest or amusement in a parade of individuals carefully designed to be goofy.

Perhaps in the cluttered Revelers Henley seeks to have it both ways, urging us to love her precious, delicate rude mechanicals even as they're meant to irritate the living bejesus out of us. But the play is too heavy-handed to be whimsical, too idiosyncratic to be credible, and despite some witty flourishes and endearing touches, too haphazardly structured to hold together over two acts.

Pulitzer winner Henley, best known for her early plays Crimes of the Heart and The Miss Firecracker Contest, is no stranger to quirky characters and loopy plot developments. But here they feel contrived, then thrown together to produce maximum comic results. These are the outlandish ingredients Henley has whipped up in no particular order: Jasper Dale is a self-pitying thespian with penchants for sucking his hair, eating compulsively, and wearing flip-flops; Victor Lloyd is a duplicitous action-movie actress who fancies herself a modern-day Tallulah Bankhead; Timothy Harold, her young suitor, is a popular animated-movie director who speaks in cartoon noises whenever he gets flustered; Caroleena Lark is a flighty theater peon with alleged psychic powers; Kate Spoon Mulligan is a talentless, horny socialite who dreams of playing Hecuba in Euripedes' The Trojan Women; Eddy Canary is a once-promising novelist who hasn't written a word since he turned to drink; and of course there's the deceased's brother Bob Gray, whose T-shirt--in one of Henley's more inspired gimmicks--changes color depending on his mood.

Set in the spring at a northern Wisconsin cottage where Dash Gray's memorial service is being videotaped for posterity, Henley's play is a maddeningly confused blend of farce, tragedy, romance, social critique, and broad cartoon. Over the course of the play old romances are renewed and renounced, long-held secrets are shown to be lies, friendships of convenience are destroyed through jealousy and spite, and vows made during the night are broken the following morning. Before the play is over, every character reveals that he or she is something of a fraud. The young psychic who seems possessed by the spirit of Dash Gray is little more than a ham driven by self-aggrandizement and vengeance. The Hollywood starlet who speaks loftily of love and romance is merely a user. Even the plodding brother is far more conniving and self-interested than he first appears.

The twists and revelations are sometimes intriguing or inspiring, but only if there are three characters or fewer onstage: we're offered a momentarily moving sparkle of romance between dipsomaniac writer Canary and movie star Lloyd, a touching scene between the hapless Bob and the giddy Lark, cartoonist Harold's oddly affecting "Zoom! pow!" contributions to discussions. But one stage and one play ain't big enough for all seven of these characters at once. Whenever more than one interaction is onstage, Henley's writing feels imprecise and Dan LaMorte's staging messy. Exchanges between characters that are the focal points of scenes are often stiff, as supporting characters float around the periphery seemingly unsure of what to do. The play often comes across not so much exhilaratingly manic and chaotic--apparently Henley's goal--as underwritten and needlessly complicated. The lack of a protagonist, which wouldn't necessarily be troubling, here results in a play with no coherent point of view. For no apparent reason some characters and incidents receive a lot of attention while others get short shrift. Much stage time is given to Lloyd, whose movie-star antics are hackneyed and obvious, while more intriguing characters like Harold and Kate Spoon Mulligan remain obscure. But maybe if they'd been given more attention they'd be just as irritating.

Constrained by the uncertain authorial tone--Henley can't decide whether to mock or sympathize--the Center Theater actors veer uncomfortably between the whimsical airiness of A Midsummer Night's Dream and grating spitefulness. As Harold and Canary, Kevin Mullaney and Robert Maffia have their moments of inspiration and understated pathos. But only Marc Vann as Bob creates a fully developed, richly detailed character. Most of the rest of the cast are content to wallow in the stereotyped trappings of their cartoonish characters. Even the set design, by Joseph Wade, is confusing: it's often unclear whether the characters are inside or outside and how the distance between them allows some to hear what's said onstage while others can't.

At a time when theatrical inspiration and artistry are rare, it would have been welcome to discover either an indictment of contemporary theater or a celebration of its few dedicated practitioners from one of its most celebrated voices. Maybe when Henley can sort out how she feels about the drama world--which first embraced her but later seemed to turn its back on her (her last collaboration with Center Theater, the 1992 Control Freaks, was coolly received)--she can come up with a brilliant comedy or a devastating critique. But this hodgepodge of conflicting messages is neither.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by JoAnn Carney.

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