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Modern Problems 

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at the Victory Gardens Studio Theater

Dr. Harlon's One-Way Ticket bills itself as a "humorous look at the pitfalls of man/woman relationships in the 1980s." That's a challenging task. I mean, it's hard to thumb through the newspaper these days without stumbling across a half dozen articles about AIDS. It's inescapable. I wondered whether Cindy Caponera and Will Clinger, in this two-person show, would escape the issue, or take a chance and address it.

So of all the lines in Dr. Harlon's One-Way Ticket, the bottom line is drawn when Annette asks Frankie, "Who have you had sex with in the past eight years?"

Frankie and Annette are one of ten couples played by Caponera and Clinger. They dance without touching. They frolic without getting gritty. They sing a beach song about safe sex. Of course they're anachronisms, but how appropriate, how antiseptic, and, since they're onstage in the here and now, how cynical. Or, as Frankie says when he proposes to Annette, "Sure, our love will only last a couple years, but we'll have safe sex the rest of our lives."

Having addressed the subject in this musical interlude, Caponera and Clinger move on, and the rest of the comedy revue cuts and slashes into other, less morbid, aspects of the romantic dilemma. Yet this touch-and-go tactic isn't altogether evasive, because, in the other nine couples portrayed, sex is clearly not the issue, and it's significant in its absence. Power and manipulation take the place of sex--adaptation by sublimation. This is the world according to Caponera and Clinger.

Dr. Harlon Stuart is the spokesman of a new era. He appears on a promotional videotape at the beginning of the show, hawking his seminar on modern romance. He's part L. Ron Hubbard and part Dr. Ruth, a slick justifier of harmony through emotional coercion. Dr. Harlon's wife, who later appears wearing a neck brace and sunglasses, flinches when Dr. Harlon makes a sudden move. And, since Dr. Harlon and wife appear only on television, their periodic punctuating of the show is all the eerier. They're more than a thematic gimmick tying the show together. They're the new order.

Meanwhile, various couples illustrate just how wrong things can turn out these days between a man and a woman. One couple, Larry and Adele, move in together after Larry impatiently seduces Adele. But then Larry goes limp, hanging around all day watching TV, making excuses, leeching off Adele. When Adele reaches the saturation point, she tells him, "Moving in with you is like a one-way ticket to Stupidsville." The title of the revue is thus explicated, and you get the idea that Dr. Harlon's one-way ticket is a trip to somewhere you can't afford to return from.

Another couple, who get a good deal of exposure during the show, are Sandy and Greg. Mostly it's Sandy, alone onstage, calling Greg on the phone and forcing him, either through guilt or hysteria, into a relationship. When all else fails, Sandy cuts her wrists and winds up in the hospital, where she calls her mother for some attention.

It's a bleak scene in the recounting of it, but the show is funnier to watch. The problem is, as it always is, that romantic misalliances are more comic to observe than to live through. It's a matter of detachment. Perhaps that's one reason why the Dr. Harlon portions of the show, on videotape, are more amusing than the live performances, and why the exaggerated characters are funnier than the more lifelike. The ultimate reason is that pathetic people like Larry and Sandy are a little too real to be funny, especially if you've been involved with someone like that.

We've covered desperation, entrapment, and exploitation. So let's not ignore the biological clock, career sublimation, and the simple human need for approval. The first two are wittily treated in a racquetball episode with two on-the-go lawyers. She simply can't schedule him in for a date. Oh, she once had the opportunity for a family and the whole deal, but, as she says when she sums up her career commitments, "You do the arithmetic." Yes, this scene is derivative--you've seen something like it before--but it's focused and effective. The male lawyer, in the end, retaliates in the only way left to him: first ridiculing the woman's insecurities, and then grabbing her.

Well, that leaves the human desire for approval. Again, the pretext of this skit is cliched--an acting class in which the teacher badgers an actress giving a monologue. Nothing she does is real; nothing is heartfelt; and he slaps her to get a response out of her. He humiliates her in front of the class. Finally the actress, Molly, tells him off and walks out. But he stops her, praising the sincerity of her outburst, leading her back onto the stage. And, of course, she's overcome with the flattery that he's dished out on top of his earlier abuse.

All rather cynical, certainly, but not as heavy as Schnitzler's La Ronde, or as absurd as Albee's American Dream. Dr. Harlon's One-Way Ticket walks the line between social statement and flat-out, go-for-broke comedy revue. It does not walk that line without weaving. Many points are belabored, and two of the couples in the show are plain filler. But overall, the show sticks to the point. The point is that we are facing an unusual era, an era when celibacy is nudging the complex politics of romance into a struggle without climax--a cold war.

Caponera and Clinger excel the usual fringe of second-string Second City alumni. Caponera is a more versatile performer than Clinger. Her characters are more memorable. But neither of them creates characters that are anything but illustrations. And at no point in the evening are you simply stunned by an actor's transformation from one character to another.

The video portions of the show are very good indeed. Paul Hazard, who produced the videos, has done some very funny editing, and he has a wry sense of the cliches of promotional videos. Laura Wasserman wrote the music, which is banal in the extreme, particularly the song with the refrain, "This is the business of love. I'm taking applications here." So, take along a Walkman, or suffer through it.

The redeeming thing about Dr. Harlon's One-Way Ticket is the intent and continuity of the script. Its ambitions cover somewhat for its lapses in originality. Most comedy revues stretch a long way to come up with an overall theme, or even a title. Dr. Harlon's One-Way Ticket makes a coherent response to our crumbling age of sexual liberation. It's not the most incredibly funny show I've seen, but it doesn't fall on its face clutching a rubber chicken either. It's just cynical enough to face some reality, and hardheaded enough to come away laughing.


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