Love and Anger | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Love and Anger 

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LOVE AND ANGER

Next Theatre Company

Artists who wish to rail against the establishment must do so carefully. They may disagree with the policies of the establishment, but they mustn't offend anyone if they want to be successful and well funded. You can talk all you want about how the world is being taken over by gray-suited robots, but if you want money for your project, you'd better go out and buy yourself a suit.

If you're Stephen Sondheim, you can protest against the corporate takeover of the arts in a song like "Putting It Together," then turn around and sell it to IBM. The Grapes of Wrath can speak out against establishment forces, but better not do it too loud or AT&T might take your money away. Many artists are like court jesters who insult the ruler but never really threaten his authority.

Such is the case with George F. Walker's Love and Anger, an uneasy mixture of slapstick comedy, maudlin soap opera, and politically correct antiestablishment rant. Initially the play takes some good shots at the establishment, but it falls far short of suggesting anything revolutionary; it winds up preserving the status quo and endorsing the idea of reforming the system from within.

The focus of the play is one Petie Maxwell, once a money-hungry lawyer and now a champion of working-class people's rights. A stroke has made him realize the error of his materialistic ways, and he's set up shop in a basement far away from the world of car phones, high rises, and Rolexes.

Maxwell takes the case of a young black woman who claims that her jailed husband has been railroaded by the system, and though the lawyer is still in poor health, he uses this as an opportunity to confront the modern forces of evil. He links the case to Babe Connor, a sleazy tabloid newspaper publisher, and to Sean Harris, an evil, smiling attorney with his sights set on high political office. He denounces these modern-day "Nazis," these "clones," in a highly unconventional trial presided over by Maxwell's secretary's schizophrenic sister, who detests the world that is run by "big, beefy white guys."

There are slapstick fight scenes with swivel chairs and toilet plungers, invocations of the plight of the poor and the homeless, and a particularly cloying death scene. The mood switches rapidly from serious to cartoonish, from angry to apologetic. The play drops a few snappy lines here and there and makes some good points, but ultimately Walker's message is smothered by stoogelike villains and some highly improbable plot twists at the end.

The politically correct might be bothered by the play's comic trivialization of schizophrenia, some strange racial humor, and the fact that the war against the "beefy white guys" is led by a not-so-beefy white guy. But the main problem with this show is its inconsistent tone. Love and Anger could be a highly charged political comedy, a serious debate over issues like health care and homelessness, a slapstick farce. But trying to be all three things, the play falters.

Under Harriet Spizziri's direction some characters behave inconsistently, while others behave so predictably as to be completely flat. Charles J. Likar as newspaper publisher Babe Connor and Wayne Brown as lawyer/politician Sean Harris are called upon to play broad villains of the dinner-theater variety; their facial expressions remain constant throughout. Meanwhile Karen L. Stephens as the client and Tina Thuerwachter as Maxwell's secretary force their swinging moods and attitudes to fit the needs of the twisting plot.

Joe Van Slyke as Maxwell and Marilyn Dodds Frank as the schizophrenic Sarah are to be commended for their performances. Van Slyke is a masterful comic actor with a sense of rhythm and deadpan timing that recall Cary Grant, and Frank's giddy, self-possessed energy makes her a joy to watch whenever she's onstage.

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