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I Can't Keep Running in Place 

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I CAN'T KEEP RUNNING IN PLACE

Chicago Late Night Productions

at the Raven Theatre

Any critic who claims to enter the theater with no preconceived ideas about the play is lying. Any bit of preshow information--the play's title, the name, gender, age, and nationality of the playwright, the location of the theater--calls up associations. Already informed that this was a musical comedy about a women's assertiveness-training class, I felt panic setting in when I saw the program cover: seven caricatured women in various career uniforms. The program notes informed me that one actress was "active . . . cooking gourmet meals for her family" and another had "just moved into a new home with a man she is delighted to say she can count on." It's only a musical, I reminded myself.

And a musical that, because it was neither too militant nor too cute, I found myself liking. I Can't Keep Running in Place contains no gratuitous male bashing, no smothering sisterhood-and-solidarity smugness; and on the other hand nobody ends up deliriously happy because she's finally landed the man of her dreams and there's only one tears-and-hugs reconciliation. The surprisingly intelligent and insightful script, written, I'm told, by Barbara Schottenfeld at the age of 21 when she was at Yale, distinguishes between assertiveness and aggressiveness, recognizes that women are manipulated by other women as well as by men, and even considers the possibility that self-help classes like the one in the play may be nothing more than "menopausal masturbation." When the play ends, none of the characters' lives has been radically changed, their successes are small or undetermined, they probably won't ever see each other again--but it's still upbeat. Everybody's gotta start somewhere, and although thinking of preparing to perhaps take a first step toward independence may be a small step, it's better than--well, running in place.

Although Schottenfeld's script is brisk, her score (she wrote both lyrics and music) frequently plods, with too many where-am-I-going soliloquies and up-and-at-'em cheerlieder. Notable exceptions are a comically defiant antidieting anthem, "More of Me to Love," and the innovatively staged "Penis Envy," which may be the best satirical song about sex since Aristophanes. The cast sings enthusiastically, if not always skillfully (though Diane Zimmer and Nancy Belda have voices strong enough to etch and shatter glass, respectively), and musical director Charles Hayes sets a good stride, nimbly and tirelessly, on the piano.

Unfortunately the musical numbers take up a lot of time. Of necessity, plot and character complexities get short shrift, and so the seven women of I Can't Keep Running in Place are the standard female bomber squadron--the young man-hunting spacebrain, the bovine earth mother ("We had the first child to prove we were normal, then we had the second to keep the first one company, and we're having the third so that the first two won't compete"), the black hot mama, the adolescent with mother problems, the housewife of nebulous personality, the cold and brittle bitch (she's easy to spot because she's skinny and smokes cigarettes), and of course the group leader who's really as confused and vulnerable as the others. Why are these women taking this class at this time in their lives? Because if they weren't, we wouldn't have our cross section of the modern female, silly. Still, in a format that doesn't allow for much expansion or nuance, all the performers are to be commended for making their characters, who could have been as flat as their pictures on the program cover, into whole human beings, or at least into relatively cliche-free archetypes.

So will my boyfriend, or yours, demand combat pay to see this play? The transformation from Astro Turf doormat to autonomous biped is certainly not restricted to one sex. (Dan Kryston, the director of this Chicago Late Night production, told me that he'd taken assertiveness-training classes himself at one time.) Given the manner in which our culture continues to train its children, yes, the ideas about self-assertion explored in this play may well be of interest to more women than men, but its human and, more important, entertainment values should speak to all but the most mistrustful.

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