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Doctor Death 

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at Cafe Aroma


Griffin Theatre Company

Dr. Spray, Marc Smith's rather abbreviated one-man show, concerns the once-notorious turn-of-the-century rogue, coroner, and alienist. A member of Chicago's notorious Whitechapel Club, founded in the late 1880s by the likes of Peter Finley Dunne and George Ade, Spray is best known as the man who supplied the club with what some described as "the finest collection of skulls in the country," many of which had been made into gas lamps. (The club also sported a coffin that doubled as a table, the mummified head of an Indian princess, and walls decorated with all manner of "swords, dirks, rifles and derringers.") Dr. Spray, in the words of a contemporary, was "himself a startling sight," with shoulder-length blond hair and an equally long mustache, the ends of which "brushed his coat lapels."

Though Dr. Spray is not yet fully realized, it may in the fullness of time turn into something worthwhile. In the meantime Smith, best known as the founder and biggest booster of the poetry-slam movement, certainly looks the part in a seedy black jacket and rumpled white shirt and wearing his long brown hair, normally tied back in a ponytail, loose over his face. His performance, however, is less than satisfying.

Part of the problem is that Smith's original script doesn't really let us see the whole Dr. Spray in all his eccentric glory. Instead Smith becomes so fixated on the more sensationalistic sides of the doctor's life--such as the fact that as Cook County coroner his life consisted of one autopsy after another--that he fails to communicate even the sketchiest idea of what it must have been like to hang out with some of Chicago's wittiest journalists and writers. Nor do we learn much about Dr. Spray's life and opinions, beyond his rather macabre line of work.

Dr. Spray, who loved the company of writers, wrote nothing himself, so Smith has produced several long, gassy monologues in a 19th-century style about mortality, but these overblown speeches are more pretentious than insightful, more annoying than charming. He delivers them between selections of the poetry Spray "probably" read--Shakespeare's Sonnet 143, A.E. Robinson's "Richard Cory," fellow Chicagoan Eugene Field's treacly children's poem "The Sugar Plum Tree." These Smith delivers in his trademark rough-hewn performance-poetry style. Still, his charm and sly wit often make up for the choppy, amateurish line readings and cornpone delivery. However, charm alone won't make up for the fact that the show, which lasts barely an hour including an extended break, is brief and unsatisfying.

Rick Almada's The Third Planet Earth begins with a bang--a loud recorded explosion accompanied by a handful of screaming actors, some in period costume, careening across the stage--and finishes with an hour-long whimper. Griffin Theatre Company's current late-night offering is a grimly unfunny sci-fi comedy that takes place on a parallel planet earth--not, as the author takes pains to explain in the prologue, the somewhat better known parallel world of bad sci-fi movies and old Superman comics but a "third planet earth." Like the other parallel earth, it's almost exactly like our own. This distinction without a difference doesn't change Almada's often aimless story, but it does speak volumes about the playwright's tendency to get lost in the details--the pseudoscientific explanations, the nifty sci-fi devices, including a nickelodeon that allows people to see their past lives.

It's almost as if Almada forgets to tell an interesting or coherent story. The plot is so complicated, so full of blind alleys and unfinished story lines, that repeating it in detail here would be even less interesting than watching it was in the first place. Some metaphysical catastrophe, a "time fusion," has befallen the "third earth," and now every human being who has ever lived has been transported to a present so crowded with cavemen, Civil War veterans, soldiers from Napoleon's army, and the like that "all prior-to-20th-century people," in the prologue's awkward phrase, are being relocated to concentration camps.

Given this rather disturbing premise, Almada spends surprisingly little time exploring the story's dark implications--if he's even aware they exist. Instead he diddles away precious stage time introducing characters--a grunting caveman, a whiny girl from the suburbs--who have absolutely nothing to do with the main plot in scenes that do nothing to advance the story, including a mildly humorous game-show takeoff and a tedious TV-commercial parody.

In fact, to call these actors running around in period costumes "characters" is a bit misleading: the stock characters populating bad sitcoms have more personality than the one-dimensional beings who scurry and jabber their way through this drivel. In this play the deeper characters have a costume and an accent; the shallower ones, just a costume.

Which is a shame because Almada, who also directs, has assembled a capable cast--and not one is allowed to display even a tiny portion of his or her talents. As Candice, the jazz-age sophisticate, for example, Debra Rich--who was so fine a year ago in Stephen Metcalfe's Emily--is asked to do little more than reflect light as she strikes this or that Virginia Woolf-esque pose. As a smarmy game-show host G. Scott Thomas reveals only a glimmer of the talent he showed as the eccentric dad in The Largest Elizabeth in the World.

Every writer I know has at least one work, usually an early effort, that doesn't make the grade. What a shame Almada didn't find a suitable drawer for The Third Planet Earth.


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