Shh . . . What Will the Neighbors Think?/In Perpetuity Throughout the Universe | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Shh . . . What Will the Neighbors Think?/In Perpetuity Throughout the Universe 

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SHH . . . WHAT WILL THE NEIGHBORS THINK?

I'm Not Howard Productions

at Center Theater Studio

IN PERPETUITY THROUGHOUT THE UNIVERSE

Resistance

at Curious Theatre Branch

In Shh . . . What Will the Neighbors Think? author Susan Howard has created an offensive, silly parody of American family life, a hopelessly confused script that this decent cast is forced to interpret. The play concerns the Sanders family, a well-to-do clan with unsavory habits. Not only do they eat junk food at every meal (with plenty of pointless stomach-turning antics), they also dabble in child abuse and incest. After an ominous offstage voice (representing "acceptable society") demands that they clean up their act or else, the family find that change is too much to handle. The attack on family values in this new play might have made for biting satire, but Howard couldn't decide what she wanted to say. Her script never gets beyond a self-indulgent gross-out.

The main problem seems to be a lack of formal consistency. The show is billed as an absurd comedy, but the dialogue slides abruptly from absurdism to realism. In the first scene we see son Jimmy spitting up his mashed potatoes, daughter Sally jumping on the table with a can of whipped cream and doing a striptease, and mommy hog-tying daddy with a belt so they can have sex. This would all be well and good if the characters didn't say things like "We can only relate on this one-dimensional level. We're so pathetic!" and "Fuck if I know what the shit is going on in this family!" every few minutes.

You might assume that this attack on accepted morals would have a point. But whatever message this play might have is obscured by the heavy-handed lunacy. The ending seems to suggest that the family were better off throwing food at one another between unhealthy sexual escapades. Yet they were always talking about how miserable they were. So maybe Howard is trying to say that the American family unit is fundamentally dysfunctional and that people are just victims of society's whims. But that also seems a bit of a stretch. In any case, by the end of this unpleasant experience, who cares?

Unfortunately the script takes some able actors down with it. The cast throw themselves into this world with abandon, though it often seems they don't understand what's going on either. Still, the scenes around the dining-room table are often funny and entertaining. Rebekah Smith's direction is over-the-top, which at first seems appropriate. But it relies primarily on overkill, with lots of screaming and slamming into walls.

Resistance's version of Eric Overmyer's In Perpetuity Throughout the Universe is a wreck of a different sort. Director Richard Gosse's production is so clumsy that the script is nearly impossible to follow. The group has clearly overextended itself in taking on this multilayered and difficult black comedy about racism and the power of hate.

In the play ghostwriters working for a vanity press are forced to edit neofascist propaganda to make a living. The central plot concerns Christine Penderecki, an editor working on an Asian-bashing "historical" novel called The Yellow Menace who's also having an affair with fellow editor Dennis Wu. Her morals clashing with her need for work, she attempts to destroy the book but finds that things may have already gone too far. There are also subplots about chain letters, spiritualism, the supernatural, and endless conspiracy theories to spice things up.

It wouldn't be easy to organize this circus under any circumstances, and Gosse proves to be a poor ringmaster. His staging consists of aimless and uninspired movement, with characters often stuck in odd positions that are presumably supposed to look unposed (Wu lies nearly out of sight between a desk and a wall during a good part of one scene). Making matters worse is the weak cast. The members deliver the dialogue as poorly memorized text, and their characters interact awkwardly, making the tricky plot even harder to figure out. The play becomes tedious within ten minutes.

Gosse boasts in the program that "The Resistance [is] growin' like a tumor in the bourgeoise [sic] stupor of the Midwest." That says a lot about the blurry goals of this group.

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