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Chicago Actors Ensemble

The Chicago Actors Ensemble, housed in a loft space at the top of the old Peoples Church in Uptown, is in the midst of a "Free Theatre Series" that is nothing if not eclectic. So far the company has done (each in a two-week run) Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, Michael McClure's story-theateresque Josephine: The Mouse Singer, and now, running just through this weekend, Murray Schisgal's 60s comedy Luv. The three plays have one thing in common: they depend on tightly honed but spontaneous ensemble interaction; while I didn't see the Chekhov, both Josephine and Luv have been well served by this young and talented troupe.

Whether the troupe is well served by Luv is a different question. Once fresh, innovative, and slightly shocking in its semiabsurdist lampooning of male-female relationships, Schisgal's script now comes off as tepid (act one), purposelessly offensive (act two), and permeated with misogyny, homophobia, and a general lack of compassion, all to no end.

Structurally, Luv plays like an improv sketch, working from a classic improv setup: a man is standing on a bridge getting ready to jump off when a second man comes onstage. The second man recognizes the first as an old college chum and stops him from killing himself; soon the two are comparing their respective wayward paths, one-upping each other in misery. Harry, the would-be suicide, has lost his faith in humanity and is subject to temporary attacks of paralysis, blindness, deafness, etc. Having dropped out of the middle-class rat race--"I was living in whorehouses . . . smoking marijuana . . . taking guitar lessons!"--Harry is now ready to end it all. Milt, an affluent young suburban professional, convinces Harry that all he needs is love; then he tries to set Harry up with his wife, whom he wants to divorce so he can marry another woman. The dialogue taking us up to this point is standard 60s "sick" shtick--comically overdone anecdotes about parental abuse, impotence, alcoholism, urinating dogs, and so on, along with slapstick routines based on physical disability mixed with spiritual misery. When Milt's wife Ellen comes on the scene, Schisgal adds antifemale hostility to the brew, spiced with a soupcon of queer-baiting.

Almost none of this stands up as particularly funny today, except insofar as the physical bits are well performed. Ellen (Phila Broich) and Harry (Christopher Shanahan, trying to break free of a Jack Lemmon imitation) have an extended routine in which they "test" each other's love through escalating acts of physical violence; the slapstick sequence is viscerally funny the way a good Three Stooges clip is--indeed, it's the best thing in the play, which unfortunately serves to expose how poorly Schisgal's dialogue has aged.

The cast--the third member is Kit Carson as the fickle Milt--make the most of what they've got (though their youth gets in the way of believing this play about early-mid-life crisis); Steven Gusler's staging is competent, though the broad physical bits need to loosen up to achieve the effect of animal rage simmering beneath the civilized surface. As for the play itself, it serves best to show us how far we've come.

The final free production in the current series, Shoeless Joe, a new play about the 1919 Black Sox scandal, sounds more promising.

Richard Pollack, a frequent contributor to these pages over the years, died last week. As a critic of theater, performance art, film, and books, Richard wrote for a wide range of publications--the Tribune and Sun-Times, the New York Times, the now-defunct GayLife newspaper, and several national art magazines in addition to the Reader.

You may have seen Richard at the theater: he was the fellow on crutches, his body twisted and half-paralyzed, with dark curly hair, talking to people by punching out messages on an electronic machine because he was unable to speak. He suffered since childhood from dystonia, a progressive neurological disease that distorts and stiffens the body. He wrote not because he needed the money--he was, luckily, well taken care of--but because he cared, passionately, about the arts. His condition made it difficult (and painful) for him to get around, but when he was in good health he was at nearly every performance, training an acutely critical and engaged eye on the work presented. He was a fine writer--a playwright in addition to a critic--but more than his style, what earned him his colleagues' respect (even when they disagreed with him) was the full intellectual seriousness with which he took the job of reviewing. His presence in our community will be greatly missed.

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