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PLAYWRIGHTS FOR THE '90S

Chicago Dramatists Workshop

Janus, the Roman god who gave this month its name, gazes in two directions; so it's appropriate that Chicago Dramatists Workshop inaugurates a new year with Playwrights for the '90s, its fifth annual round-up of one-acts by Chicago writers. Derivative and dynamic, retro and neo, these four works in progress look forward and back, anticipating and imitating.

That's neither good nor bad: you can go right pursuing fine models or wrong climbing out on a dead new limb. As always with CDW, these experiments are richly contrasted in style and subject, worth learning from; and the nurturing productions are at least as good as their scripts. But at 185 minutes the evening needs editing, especially two of the plays.

The most poetic offering, Paula Berg's Leon's Song, is one to read as much as see. Berg's impressionistic street drama works literally as a jazz improvisation too, backed up as it is by a supple saxophone score written and performed by Laurie Lee Moses. The title poet, Leon (Eric Winzenried), ecstatically declaims his "song," which connects three isolated neighbors: a street crazy (Bradford Farwell) who overflows with CIA conspiracy theories and brags he's a Lotto winner who just spent his last million; a gay man (John Norris) who fondly recalls the gift of a ring from a lost lover; and a blue-collar sybarite (Meaghan McCarville) who eagerly awaits the return of her "caveman" lover.

With its wailing sax and Berg's evocative Ferlinghetti-like verse, Leon's Song is the most original of the four plays, but it's also derivative: inevitably it recalls the beat poets. (It could be worse--Berg might have imitated rap and gone nowhere rhythmically.) Mark Hardiman's staging preserves the mystery of the brief encounters between these characters, though McCarville's incongruously comic character almost wrecks the play's darker mood and Farwell's street freak, however endearingly intense, is louder than life--the character sticks out too much from this word tapestry.

A bubbling, unashamed comedy, John Green's Mr. Happy at first resembles an old vaudeville skit, depicting a curious contradiction in terms: an insecure self-esteem therapist (Jason Wells). His wife, who's as unsure of his masculinity as he is, has just left him, and we see the demented doc--calling himself "your pilot on a flight to mental health"--treat Mike Bullitt (Nicholas Kusenko), an impotent soap-opera star who can't bridge the gulf between his stud-muffin TV image and his feelings of sexual inferiority.

Green has fun with the therapist's men's-movement psychobabble, with the two men's role playing (to gain confidence they hold phallic cushions and address their dicks, named "Mr. Happy" and "Godzilla"), and with the increasingly dysfunctional transferences going on between doctor, patient, and soap-opera persona. Donning bras, the men even try to "become vaginas!" (It's not as misogynistic as it sounds.) But the fun goes on too long--there are two too many endings. Or maybe it doesn't go on long enough: Mr. Happy slowly gets serious as these vaudeville stereotypes begin to bond and, gasp, even heal each other. You can feel the audience slump as this comedy takes on an unwanted third dimension. Happily, Dale McFadden's staging doesn't lose its energy, and Wells and Kusenko bring a manic commitment to their daffy parts.

The most conventional and familiar offering, Scott Sandoe's A Couple of Gay Guys Named Dan, tries to sum up in ten minutes one man's memories of a decade. Rhapsodically recollecting what he calls a "ten-year party," mercurial, unstable Mickey (Farwell) is revealed to be "shallow, distant, and unaffected," as he calls himself, in contrast to his lovers (Matt Yde and Joel Jeske), both named Dan. Only when the lovers die, presumably of AIDS, does Mickey begin to feel.

It's hard to care for Mickey; his maturation is schematic and unconvincing. Worse, his coming-of-age is of much less interest than the deaths of his lovers, which unfortunately are only tangential to Mickey's self-serving confession. Mired in easy stereotypes, Hardiman's arch staging plays up the giddiness of Mickey's memories but shortchanges whatever deepening underlies his reformation.

The most ambitious, experimental, and flawed of the foursome is Looking for the Wise Man of Comfort Station, David Rush's uneven, overlong attempt to forge a bizarre parable out of a stranded motorist's search for a mechanic. Lost in a dump perversely called Comfort Station, Rush's unnamed protagonist is a computer programmer who's played by different actors as his story unfolds. Desperate to find a distributor cap, the man embarks on an increasingly surreal hero-journey in which he meets six very strange strangers: a guitar-strumming, lovelorn waitress; a blind blues singer anxious to be recorded; a suspicious cop hoping to solve an old crime; a wounded Union soldier who can perform magic but can't die until the Civil War achieves its goal (which he never bothers to reveal); an Indian shaman who's clean out of spiritual answers; and an old woman on a beach who flies a kite and exchanges names with the computer programmer. Each of them takes the lost traveler to be someone he's not and demands something from him before they'll give him directions.

At the end the computer programmer suddenly sees what he'd sought, though he doesn't bother to tell us what it is. It doesn't matter--midway through you feel as lost as he is, but you don't care about being found.

The play's big problem, which Russ Tutterow's enterprising staging inevitably shares, is an inability to set or control the tone. For the first half Comfort Station plays like a rollicking parody, a sort of country-style version of a sword-and-sorcerers vision quest. As it slowly becomes more serious it also becomes self-indulgent, each portentous scene longer and more loaded than the one before.

As if to compensate, this weakest of the four scripts has been given the strongest staging; the seven actors here make the most of their fitful moments of truth, and Falwell plays the soldier with a drive and power that defy the lines. They root Rush's mysticism in a much more real world than his script suggests.

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