Mean Tears | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Mean Tears 

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A Red Orchid Theatre

Julian is a barely postadolescent male in desperate need of approval. His parents sent him to school in Europe, which he interprets as rejection. They allow him plenty of spending money, but he affects a tattered leather coat and never seems to have the price of a beer in his pocket. He shows no regard for appointments or promises but schedules his daily itinerary around the purchase and consumption of "blow." He pouts when forced to converse on topics not of his own choosing, whines when criticized ("I know I'm a pest. I'll go away and leave you alone"), and demands incessant, effusive praise ("Do you like this shirt? I mean, do you really like . . . Are you sure you like this?"). In short, young Julian is the most selfish, amoral, infantile, obnoxious brat to appear on the Art & Lit scene since Arthur Rimbaud, but with none of that professional bad boy's brilliance or good looks.

Naturally the aesthetes at the university are thoroughly infatuated with him. Empty-headed Celia tries to take control of their sex-and-poetry affair and is roughed up and dumped for her impudence. Savvy Nell, who's smarter and more talented than Julian, succeeds in taking control and is rewarded by midnight assaults closely resembling rape. Steve, the homosexual older man to whom Julian turns for quasi-parental nurturance, fares a little better. He doggedly accepts Julian's ill treatment, permitting their relationship to go on long enough that he can do the dumping.

Peter Gill's Mean Tears is meant to extol romantic excess. With the exception of Paul, the best buddy who dispenses soothing hugs and brotherly advice, all the characters act wholly on their emotions. (Steve's appraisal of Julian as merely "a string of appetites" could as easily apply to his fans.) Unfortunately, nothing grows boring more quickly than watching someone wallow in the pseudopsychotic agony that romantics adopt when pricked by Eros. The knowledge that most of us, at some time, have uttered such inanities as "I can't bear the thought of anyone knowing more about you than I do" in no way renders the statement less exasperating when others make it. Compounding the pretentious silliness of Gill's maudlin sudser is director Meredith McCarthy's decision to move the play from England in the 1980s to Chicago in 1993, complete with strange references to Wicker Park's wicked nightlife, "picking up the Reader for the sports," and a "doubleheader at the Green Mill." Whatever, the atmosphere pervading Mean Tears is the Victorian repression and nostalgie de la boue of pre-World War II European "decadence."

It takes a certain talent to keep a straight face while reciting such drivel as "I think I was a very loving child who never grew out of it." And nobody does the tormented Slave to Love better than Peter Forster, who plays Steve with such monomaniacal intensity that we expect him to burst into flame before intermission. Dan Meyer does his smirking sexy-little-rat turn as Julian. Kris Buckley as Nell and Dara Modglin as Celia are required to do little more than be sweet, the better to be alternately charmed and dominated by Julian (though the statuesque Buckley could probably arm wrestle the Sinatra-size Meyer to the floor in seconds). Brian Leahy is required to be unsentimental and ever ready to comfort as Paul. All three carry out these duties with more sensitivity and skill than the roles deserve. McCarthy moves her cast around on the stage with the predictability of a competent traffic cop.

Early in the play Steve declares to Julian, "You make me feel hopeless--hopeless!" an observation that encapsulates romantic obsession to the point of redundancy. Reportedly the play is autobiographical. It's certainly no disgrace to have been ripped off by a pretty-faced hustler--who among us has not mistaken nubility for genius?--but Gill's attempt to elevate sordid self-indulgence to grand passion will inspire empathy only in like-minded romantics and masochists--oops, there's that redundancy again.


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