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The Connection 

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A Red Orchid Theatre

Set in a cramped, decaying tenement, Jack Gelber's The Connection attempts the well-worn Pirandellian trick of being both a play with a story and character development and a play about the process of making theater. It continually cuts between a gritty, ultrarealistic play about a group of junkies who spend their lives waiting for their next fix and a considerably more fantastical play about a producer and writer who came up with the gimmick of casting real drug addicts in their gritty, ultrarealistic play about junkies and now have to deal with their unreliable cast.

These "real junkies" forget their lines, deliver long, digressive harangues, or simply slump off their chairs at inopportune times. "I can't tell the performance from the rehearsal," one of them mumbles. Naturally these lapses drive the author to distraction, and more than once he interrupts the play with lines like "You are murdering the play. . . . So far not one of you has carried out this dramatic assignment."

In its time, 1959, The Connection was something of a notorious cult hit, in part, I'm sure, because America was considerably less acquainted with the lower depths of the drug world. What a shiver must have run through the audience the first time a character shot up onstage.

Today it's hard to see what the fuss is all about. Gelber's junkies, regardless of whether they're "real junkies" or actors, are considerably less threatening than the psychotics you might run into on the street on any given day. (As a portrait of down-and-dirty street life, The Connection is considerably less disturbing than Lanford Wilson's 1964 play Balm in Gilead.)

In the 33 years since the play premiered, the sly, self-conscious tricks Gelber uses throughout have become awful cliches, done to death by the likes of David Letterman and all those faux pomo beer and battery ads. Audiences conditioned by years of television have more trouble focusing on a story told straight through than on one that's constantly interrupted.

Nevertheless there's something likable about Red Orchid Theatre's production. Part of the attraction is the excellent band music director Ted May has assembled. (Gelber placed a modern jazz quintet in one corner of a junkie's pad to comment on the connection between jazz and the drug culture and to emphasize the unreality of his drama.) Whenever the action in this essentially static narrative sags, the band gives the production a jolt with its cool renditions of songs such as "That's Killer Joe" and "Blue Rondo a la Turk."

This inaugural production of the Red Orchid Theatre, directed by Richard Cotovsky, also contains many fine, enthusiastic performances. Cotovsky is best known for his work at the Mary-Arrchie Theatre on plays with an angry, hip edge, and this production contains the same sort of hysterical chaos.

Here, however, Cotovsky has been given a cast far more polished and sure of themselves than any cast I've seen at the Mary-Arrchie since Cotovsky's excellent production of Pinter's The Birthday Party several years ago. Guy Van Swearingen turns in a terrific performance as the pale, sweaty junkie Leach, a man so far gone in his addiction that safe doses of the drug have no effect on him. And Lawrence Woshner is quite convincing as the slick dealer Cowboy.

But the show belongs to Joe Larocca and Julius Noflin, who deliver its two most moving monologues. Larocca's long, digressive speech in the first act is filled with so much barely controlled rage that if I didn't know he was a fixture on Chicago's off-off-Loop theater scene I would have been convinced he was a junkie cashing in his last few shreds of sanity. If every performer in the show had achieved Larocca's mad intensity, this production might well have become the sort of hit it was in New York in 1959.


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